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Date: Mon, 31 Aug 1998 22:58:21 -1000
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From: Vincent K Pollard <pollard@HAWAII.EDU>
Subject: PH: VFA will make Washington's foes ours, too (fwd)

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Date: Mon, 31 Aug 1998 20:36:09 -1000
Subject: [PALARIS] VFA will make Washington's foes ours, too

VFA will make Washington's foes ours, too

By Walden Bello, PDI, 31 August 1998

AT A recent roundtable discussion at the UP College of Law, Eugene Martin, a US Embassy official, said that there was nothing hidden in the proposed Visiting Forces Agreement: What you see is what you get.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For 95 percent of what the VFA is all about is not in the text of the agreement. And what are seemingly neutral words in the text assume ominous significance when put in the larger context of the evolving US military strategy in the Asia-Pacific region.

To put it in the most stark terms, the term activities not only refers to military exercises but can be extended to cover hot pursuit by US troops within Philippine territory of people like Osama bin Laden, the Saudi millionaire who is suspected to have masterminded the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and who is reported to have a network of radical Islamic supporters in Mindanao.

The only thing that the United States needs to do to carry out this enterprise under the VFA will be to persuade the Philippine government that such activities are in the mutual interest of both countries.

Placed in the context of developments in US strategic policy in the Asia-Pacific region in the last few years, the VFA emerges as much more than just a simple agreement that is similar to arrangements with other governments that cover the movements and behavior of US troops.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, pressures from the US public for a peace dividend pushed the Bush administration in 1990 to promise a 10-percent cut in US troop levels in the Asia-Pacific.

The end of the Cold War also saw greater demands by peoples and governments within the region for a reduced US military presence, a movement that culminated in the Philippines' termination of the lease on Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base in 1992.

Washington also looked for ways of resolving regional conflicts that would not depend on the unilateral use of show of force by the Americans, a process that resulted in the establishment of the Asean Regional Forum in July 1994.

Pentagon dismayed The Pentagon, the dominant US agency when it comes to US Pacific policy, was dismayed by these developments. It was also increasingly uncomfortable with President George Bush's policy of maintaining close ties with China, which many military analysts viewed as Washington's emerging strategic rival at both the regional and global level.

Pentagon lobbying of the succeeding administration of President Bill Clinton produced a reversal of policy beginning in 1995 when the defense department document, US Security Strategy in the Asia Pacific Region, announced that US troop levels would not go below 100,000 troops.

In that document too, the Pentagon warned that multilateral initiatives to resolve conflict like the ARF are a way to supplement our alliances and forward military presence, not supplant them.

In the period lending up to the release of the document and afterwards, the United States stepped up efforts to strengthen the northern and southern anchors of its forward deployments in the East Asian region.

In the case of Northeast Asia, intense Pentagon pressure resulted in the Hashimoto government's expansion of the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1951 by adding, in 1996, an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (Acsa) that would oblige the Japanese military to lend logistical support to US operations carried out outside Japanese territory.

The United States also moved to fortify the southern anchor of its forward defense perimeter by increasing or tightening up access arrangements with Southeast Asian countries to make up for the loss of Subic and Clark.

These included, as the Pentagon document put it, formal access agreements, informal agreements for ship and/or aircraft repairs and maintenance, and maintenance and access arrangements with many countries for training and exercise purposes.

Strengthening US intervention capabilities in the Middle East was one of the aims of this upgrading of bilateral defense relationships in the East Asian region.

New rationale But more important were two objectives that emerged as the new rationale for the US presence in the region that developed in the mid-1990s: containment of former ally China and repulsing the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.

To justify the continuing massive US military presence in the region after the evaporation of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Pacific fleet, Pentagon strategists knew they had to deploy a credible new threat.

Decrepit, stunted North Korea could not fill the bill, but gigantic China did, and here the Pentagon found common cause with congressional Republicans, most of whom had never really been reconciled to the Nixonite game of allying with China against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

To China as the main strategic rival to US global and regional hegemony, defense thinkers added another strategic threat--that emanating from Islamic fundamentalism which was said to be the main factor of political instability in an era of crisis ranging from North Africa to Southeast Asia, whose spread was perceived as threatening the existence of US allies from Mubarak in Egypt to Suharto of Indonesia.

Moreover, Pentagon analysts posited a grand strategic threat: an alliance between China and Islamic fundamentalism that Samuel Huntington, a Harvard intellectual popular at both the Pentagon and the state department, called the Islamic-Confucian connection.

Opportunity It was the Taiwan Straits crisis of mid-March 1996 that provided the opportunity for Pentagon to translate its strategy of containing China into an operational enterprise.

It was the largest backdrop of strategic reorientation that made sense what struck many as Washington's overreaction to the crisis: the sending of two carrier battle groups the largest assembled since the Vietnam War to the South China Sea despite the almost unanimous consensus among experts the China and had neither the intention nor the capacity to invade Taiwan.

But the Pentagon was engaged in symbolic politics. It took advantage of the crisis to underline to East Asian countries its view that China was a serious menace to regional stability that could only be dealt with a powerful show of US force backed up politically and logistically by America's Asian allies.

Then as the dispute between China and Asean over the Spratly Islands heated up in 1996-97, the Pentagon propaganda mill systemically inflated Beijing's claims into a prima facie case of Chinese expansionism, a force that could only be resisted by US military power that had solid political and logistical backing from Washington's allies.

Weak link As the Pentagon upgraded its forward deployments, the Philippines increasingly emerged as a weak link in the containment chain. Ever since the withdrawal of the bases in 1992, military cooperation between the two countries had become irregular.

Indeed, joint activities had dwindled to virtually zero by 1996-97. From Washington's point of view, this was undesirable not only because of the lack of practical integration of the Philippines and follow the Philippines' example of enjoying the benefits of alliance without its burdens.

With the loosening of the discipline imposed by the alliance, alternatives to US military power to keep the peace, such as the Asean Regional Forum, would become more and more attractive.

Not only was the Philippines important for the strategic containment of China, but perhaps even more critical, for effectively dealing with the Islamist challenge.

To US officials, Islamic fundamentalists operating in Mindanao, like the Abu Sayyaf and the MILF, had become worrisome elements by the mid-1990s.

Urgency of VFA But it was the unravelling of the new order in Indonesia in the last few months owing to the conjunction of the financial and political crises that underlined to Washington the urgency of concluding a VFA with Manila.

A power vacuum threatened to develop in that strategic country, one that could be filed by Islamists capitalizing on popular discontent with populist and anti-imperialist appeals.

The specter of the island and peninsular Southeast Asia being overrun by Islamist hordes became, in the Pentagon's imagination, a very plausible scenario.

Behind the seemingly harmless VFA lies the consideration that the Philippines might have to serve as a potential staging area for US operations to neutralize the Islamic fundamentalist threat or respond to a possible disintegration of Indonesia.

Undoubtedly, Pentagon officials remember the 1950s when the CIA flew support missions for renegade Indonesian military units operating against President Sukarno out of Davao City.

If military exercises will be held with the Philippine military, it is likely that Mindanao will be a choice location for these reasons.

It is against this backdrop of the US strategic game in Asia that Filipinos must evaluate the VFA.

Conflict of interest Not only is the proposed agreement riddled with flaws when it comes to the issues of national sovereignty, criminal jurisdiction, and compliance with our nuclear free constitution and the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.

More alarming is the fact that the VFA's operative assumption is that the national interest of the Philippines and the US are identical.

Without our full knowledge and certainly without or consent, it enmeshes us in America's grand strategy of containing China and Islamic revivalism, making Washington's enemies our enemies as well.

It would bring us back to the Cold War days when we were dragged into wars, hot or cold, that were hardly in our national interest.

It would reaffirm the primacy of unilateral military force as the main arbiter of conflicts and contribute to subverting Asean's effort to erect the ARF as an alternative mechanism to resolve conflict through multilateral diplomacy.

Is the Estrada administration really serious about embracing this treaty? Because of its historic and strategic implications, the VFA may yet emerge as the biggest blunder of a blundering government.