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Date: Wed, 5 Aug 1998 01:09:39 -0400
Sender: Southeast Asia Discussion List <SEASIA-L@LIST.MSU.EDU>
From: Alex G Bardsley <bardsley@ACCESS.DIGEX.NET>
Subject: Fwd: PH: Renewing military ties with US (BKKPost)


Estrada hopes to renew the bonds of the past

By Cecilia Quiambao, Bangkok Post, 5 August 1998

The Philippines no longer feels as secure as it did a few years ago and wants a return to the days when it felt safe in the knowledge the US military would be there if it was needed.

Manila—The Philippines lost its shirt to the fierce winds of the Asian financial storm. Now, feeling exposed and uncertain, it is seeking the old comfort of the American security umbrella.

Six years after helping their fellow senators expel the American forces from their country, Joseph Estrada, the new president, and Orlando Mercado, his defence secretary, are leading the push for closer military ties with the United States as a cornerstone of national security and as an anchor of Southeast Asian stability.

College dropout Estrada, unschooled in the finer points of diplomacy, bluntly points to China as the single most likely threat to the current order.

The United States and the Philippines remain bound by a 1951 mutual defence treaty despite the considerable cooling of ties since 1992 and the cancellation in 1996 of their annual joint military exercises amid mutual mistrust.

The two countries are now trying to convince the Philippine senate to ratify a visiting forces agreement signed in February that would enable US forces to resume joint training and bring in warships on port calls in the Philippines.

Mr Estrada told Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) foreign ministers at their annual meeting here last month that Manila needed to strengthen or normalise our bilateral security arrangements, particularly with the United States, our Asean partners and other Asian nations if it is to promote a foreign policy anchored on safeguarding national security, economic diplomacy and the welfare of Filipinos working abroad.

Fellow Asean members Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have similar visiting forces agreements with the United States.

Since the withdrawal of US forces from Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, the ill-equipped Philippine military has been engaged in a test of wills with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Militarily the weakest of the six claimants to the Spratly archipelago, Manila has over the past three years seen two claimed spits, Mischief Reef in the Spratlys and Scarborough shoal off Subic Bay, occupied by the Chinese—they remain at Mischief to this day but were driven off Scarborough shoal.

The situation forced the previous congress to pass a 331-billion-peso (about 250 billion baht) military modernisation law.

However Mr Estrada, who last week declared in his inaugural state of the nation address that the Philippine government was bankrupt, said he would postpone the implementation this year of the military acquisition programme aimed at giving the country decent air cover and enabling it to protect its territorial waters from poachers.

Old Uncle Sam is the one viable alternative left.

If we cooperate with the United States, our security will be protected, said Mr Estrada this week in a remarkably candid interview with a Manila radio station.

In cases of further disputes over the Spratly islands and if the People's Republic of China invades us, how do we defend ourselves? he asked.

Manila's mutual defence pact with Washington does not cover the Spratly islands, at least according to the US interpretation of the treaty, but the Philippines is contesting that.

The visiting forces agreement spells out the legal status and rights of US military personnel in the Philippines, without which the two sides have been limited to small-scale joint training programmes involving no more than 20 US troops at a time.

However, it aroused opposition here because it gives the US government primary jurisdiction over offences committed by US troops while on official duty, and more broadly in all criminal cases except those covered by US military law.

Although such arrangements are standard features of the lone superpower's military ties around the world, they have proved politically explosive—particularly in Japan in 1994 in the backlash to the rape of an Okinawan schoolgirl by US servicemen, and more recently in Italy when a low-flying US military aircraft hit a ski lift, killing more than 20 people.

There were also social concerns raised by opponents of the agreement, particularly concerning prostitution and Aids, suspicions that it would lead to a de facto permanent American military presence and concerns by the Philippine government that US ships making port calls would be carrying nuclear weapons in violation of the constitution which bars all nuclear weapons from Philippine territory.

Three high-ranking US officials—US Pacific forces commander Adm Joseph Prueher, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defence Secretary William Cohen—have made a beeline to Manila over the past four weeks to promote the accord.

Ms Albright said last week after calling on Mr Estrada that we have made statements all along that our surface ships do not carry nuclear weapons.

It is my understanding that the government supports this agreement and that it is one that is viewed as beneficial to both countries.

The United States does not seek any bases in the Philippines, said Mr Cohen after meeting his Filipino counterpart, Defence Secretary Orlando Mercado, on Monday.

The (Philippine) president feels very strongly committed to the VFA (visiting forces agreement) and he believes that it is necessary in order to help both our militaries train and exercise together, that the Philippine military will be a beneficiary of that training and exercise, and we will help contribute to the stability of the region, said Mr Cohen after calling on Mr Estrada.

Mr Mercado expressed confidence that the government would be able to muster the support of 16 of the country's 24 senators—the minimum number necessary to ratify the agreement.

We feel that these exercises are of use and benefit to our country, especially now that we are in a bind and not able to pursue with gusto our modernisation programme, he said.