Fellows Speak

U.S. Military Bases: A Deficit of Promises

Ben Lim
Aug. 15, 2013

Many Filipino commentators have wondered whether the series of tactics Washington has put forth in its pivot to Asia included not only moves to push the Philippines to toughen its stance against China in its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea along with the assurance that the U.S. would come to its rescue, should the struggle deteriorate into an armed conflict. At America’s instigation, the Philippines and Vietnam told China that the approach to any negotiation over the disputed territories should be multilateral, which means that it should include even non-claimants such as the United States. This proposal is contrary to China’s stand that the mode of negotiation should be bilateral and limited to claimants to the disputed areas.

The Philippines and Vietnam also followed American game plan to pressure the other ASEAN non-claimants to come up with a joint resolution to condemn China for its “aggressive behavior” in the South China Sea. No doubt these American-instigated tactics are meant to suggest that ASEAN has accepted not only the legitimacy of America’s pivot but also America’s leadership in the region.

Despite the Philippines’ enthusiastic discharge of American policy objectives, in the heat of the fracas, unanticipatedly former U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton made the unexpected and shocking announcement that the U.S. is neutral as to which country has the stronger territorial claim in the South China Sea. Hilary’s announcement had disappointed and embarrassed the Philippine leadership as it has boasted to China and to the world that the U.S. is the Philippines’ closest and most reliable ally – the U.S. would go to war against any third party that attacks the Philippines.

As solace to Philippine incredulity that the U.S. could renege on its promise of support or could abandon its closest ally, Washington quickly offered to help the Philippines build its maritime defense system against China by selling to the country two decommissioned, 47-year old patrol vessels, called Hamilton Cutters. This transaction, although it cost the Philippine treasury hundreds of millions, has assuaged the Filipino people’s feeling of abandonment by the U.S., and the latter has regained its stature as the country that is most loved by the Filipinos, as reported in PEW’s global survey a month ago.      

Secretary Hilary Clinton’s announcement about neutrality, accordingly, is part of America’s message to the Philippine leadership that the U.S., in order to convince the American people that it should provide military power or to open a battlefront against China that could cost the American people billions of dollars (the cost of just one missile with multiple nuclear warheads is more than a hundred million dollars not to speak of the need to deploy nuclear carriers, fighter jets equipped with hi-tech weaponry, and a heavily-equipped ground force), needs more than just love for Washington to go to war against China so the Philippines can keep a few rocks in the South China Sea and for which the value of the underwater hydro-carbon and mineral resources have not been determined. Moreover, going to war against China means America could lose one of its largest trading partners (current U.S. trade volume with China is over $600 billion dollars. China also holds over a trillion dollars in U.S. treasury bonds. )  The Philippines must show that in order to help insure the success of the U.S. pivot to Asia and that it indeed deserves the protection of the U.S. security umbrella, it must be able to compensate for America’s losses if it goes to war against China, or at the very least, allow the U.S. to regain basing rights to its former military bases in the country, the Subic Naval Base and the Clark Air Base.

The Philippines abrogated its military bases agreement with the U.S. in 1991 or 22 years ago. The Senators who voted against the treaty agreement claimed that they don’t want the Philippines to be a magnet for nuclear attacks or allow bringing nuclear arms in the country.  Others feared having a U.S. base could promote prostitution in the area.  

Clearly President Aquino, his defense officials and foreign office advisers believe that in order to deter “China’s aggressive staking of its claims over nearly the entire South China Sea” it needs American security umbrella through an increase in “the rotational presence of American troops in the country” -  PNoy’s euphemism for granting Americans basing rights to Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base - while avoiding the need to address Philippine constitutional prohibition on foreign military bases as well as transit or storage of nuclear weapons.

It is equally clear that allowing the U.S. basing rights is not a popular policy. Indeed in view of increasing criticisms about PNoy circumventing close scrutiny of the agreement by the Senate and the Filipino people, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte gave the assurance that there was “no done deal” yet as foreign affairs and defense officials have just began talks only a few days ago.

But some commentators, this early, have pointed out that granting the U.S. basing rights at Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base will not deter China from patrolling the South China Sea or the East Sea to protect its claim and its fishermen in those areas. The U.S. has military bases in Okinawa and Japan has similar Defense Treaty as the Philippines with the U.S.; still China patrols the waters close to the Diaoyu or Senkaku islands. These same commentators have argued that granting U.S. basing rights in the belief that mere presence of U.S. war planes and war vessels will foil China’s “intense form of bullying,” is an irrational and thoughtless policy. They noted that the Philippines was given the same assurance during the Senate hearing on Visiting Forces Agreement by the U.S. Ambassador to then Foreign Secretary Siazon, that the U.S. will come to the rescue in case of third party attack against the Philippines in the territories claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea.

It should be pointed out that even in the Visiting Force Agreement that the U.S. objectives do not coincide with the Philippine objectives.  Zamboanga City Mayor Isabel Climaco-Salazar cited what she called “vague” terms of reference on the presence of U.S. troops during a closed door meeting with Defense Secretary Gazmin, Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and AFP chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista. She pointed out that even the Visiting Forces Agreement was not clear about the scope of operations of the U.S. Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines. “As to years of their presence in the city of Zamboanga, they have not given us the long-term plan and the national government is up again in discussing the issue. Salazar has requested the U.S. government to specify the extent and scope of operations of its forces in the region.
Many nationalist groups have held rallies to protest PNoy’s plan to grant the U.S. military basing rights in the country for fear that it will become a magnet for nuclear attacks. Suppose, some of them ask, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s intelligence officers learned that a U.S. warship docked at Subic is preparing to attack North Korea and Kim decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the U.S. vessel by sending a missile armed with multiple nuclear warheads. And suppose aside from hitting the U.S. vessel one of the nuclear bombs landed in Olongapo City and over a hundred thousand Filipinos died in the attack, thousands of business establishments are razed to the ground, the whole of Subic and Olangapo City become uninhabitable for 25 years because of nuclear radiation, will the U.S. compensate for so-called “collateral damage”? How much will the U.S. pay for each dead Filipino, the business establishments, and the effects of radiation on these areas?  How soon will the U.S. pay, if any, for the victims? Many Filipino veterans who fought side by side with the U.S. against the Japanese Imperial Army have not been compensated until now. Some of them have died waiting for the promised backpay. The nationalists are asking whether the collateral damages are worth the price of foiling “China’s intense bullying or aggressive staking of its claims in the South China Sea?”

In relation to these issues, some historians have called attention to the records of past U.S. military presence which have failed to insure safety for the Filipinos. Among others it did not foil the Japanese invasion and occupation of the Philippines. It did not keep Filipino women safe from sexual assaults by U.S. military personnel. Worst, the Philippines had no criminal jurisdiction over American military personnel who committed crimes against Filipinos in and outside the military bases.    

Given all these records and scenarios of U.S. military presence, is the granting of basing rights to the U.S. the only solution to resolve our territorial disputes with China? How will it help resolve our disputes with the other claimants that are also close allies of the United States such as Taiwan and Vietnam?
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