January 2012 marks the 10th anniversary of the Balikatan 02-1 or Operation Enduring Freedom Philippines which placed for the first time US troops in Mindanao. Since January 2002, US troops have been permanently stationed in Mindanao, particularly the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines operating under the US Special Operations Command. US military presence in Mindanao is now longer than their deployment in Iraq. The Aquino government has merely continued the policy first started by the Arroyo regime, making it no different from the GMA regime in terms of its pro-US policy.
In 2002, the Philippines was tagged by the US as the “second front” in the “war on terror”, and Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines was launched against the Abu Sayyaf and the Jemaah Islamiya that was purportedly training in Mindanao. The US has since engaged in various activities not defined in the RP-US Visiting Forces Agreement such as joining combat operations and conducting intelligence work.
The US justifies their basing in Mindanao in by saying that their presence was requested by the Philippine government. But as a New York Times report in August 2009 showed, the decision to retain US troops in Mindanao was a unilateral move announced by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Unlike in Iraq, there is no time-table for the pull-out of US troops in Mindanao. There are no clear parameters on how they will consider their mission ‘accomplished’. Clearly, the US government is circumventing a constitutional prohibition on US bases. The Philippine Constitution is clear, no foreign military bases absent a treaty ratified by both governments.
New US strategy focuses on Asia-Pacific
The new US defense strategy for 2012, released last January 3 by US President Barrack Obama, will ensure permanent US military presence in the Philippines. According to Obama, “we will focus on a broader range of challenges and opportunities, including the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific”.
Download new US Defense Strategy here
US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says the new strategy aims to “sustain US strategic leadership” by “emphasizing the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East”. The US Joint Force aims to be “smaller and leaner, but agile and flexible, ready and technologically advanced”.
One can say that the US force currently in Mindanao, consisting of 600 Special Forces operatives, conforms to this description.
The main document, Sustaining US Global Leadership, Priorities for 21st Century Defense, explains the rationale of the so-called “shift”.
“U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region”.
The rise of China as a global power is viewed as one of the main reasons for the emphasis in the Asia-Pacific. “Over the long term, China’s emergence as a regional power will have the potential to affect the U.S. economy and our security in a variety of ways… The United States will continue to make the necessary investments to ensure that we maintain regional access and the ability to operate freely in keeping with our treaty obligations and with international law.”
Viewed from the Philippine perspective, the conflict in the Spratlys will remain a key interest of the US since it involves China and what the US believes, rightly or wrongly, are restrictions on access to the South China Sea.
It is very likely that US troops will remain in Mindanao in the foreseeable future, based on this new strategy. The U.S. wants its forces to “conduct a sustainable pace of presence operations abroad, including rotational deployments and bilateral and multilateral training exercises” similar to the ones they have been doing in the Philippines since 2002. US forces in Mindanao, for example, are deployed on a rotational basis and are engaged in bilateral and multilateral training exercises among other activities.
The purpose of these activities is to “reinforce deterrence, help to build the capacity and competence of U.S., allied, and partner forces for internal and external defense, strengthen alliance cohesion, and increase U.S. influence”, according to the document.
The only qualifier the US made on its presence operations abroad would be fiscal constraints. “With reduced resources, thoughtful choices will need to be made regarding the location and frequency of these operations,” the document said. One report estimated that the US spends $50 million a year to sustain its troop deployment in Mindanao.
The Western Command (WesCom) of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has confirmed the holding of bigger joint military exercises under the RP-US Balikatan in April this year. It will now involve enlisted men from both countries from all branches of military service.
The US also aims to project its military power amid challenges from states such as China and Iran. “In order to credibly deter potential adversaries and to prevent them from achieving their objectives, the United States must maintain its ability to project power in areas in which our access and freedom to operate are challenged. States such as China and Iran will continue to pursue asymmetric means to counter our power projection capabilities,” the document said.
The new US strategy is merely a re-echoing of the old US agenda of imposing its global dominance economically, politically and militarily. Any “shift” in strategy can be related to the US’ need to meet new regional “challenges” amid growing fiscal constraints. However, the core agenda remains the same.
Furthermore, continued US military presence in the Philippines is an affront on our country’s sovereignty, and quite the opposite of the US’ stated goals, a threat to regional stability and peace. ###