Relief and rebalancing: The US military in the Philippines in the aftermath of Haiyan

Posted: November 30, 2013 in Socio-Political
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Image resultMany Filipinos seemed to welcome the arrival of US troops to aid in relief efforts for victims of Typhoon Haiyan, believed to be one of the strongest storms recorded in history. The devastation was just too extensive and the Philippine government was incompetent, disorganized and unprepared to meet the needs of the victims.

It was during the first 48 hours in the aftermath of the storm that US forces began establishing a presence in the Eastern Visayas region. In a matter of days, US air and naval assets were being moved from Japan to Tacloban City in Leyte. About 300 US forces were initially deployed. In the first week of the calamity, the US Department of Defense said it would ramp up its ground presence to 1,000 US troops. The USS George Washington also arrived from Hong Kong and was stationed off Samar Island. Some 8,000 US troops were reported to have been involved in the relief operations.

On November 15, newscaster Noli de Castro, a former Philippine vice president, said that US troops were the ones directing air traffic at the Tacloban airport.

The US has a long history with the Samar and Leyte islands. It was in this region that Filipinos fought American colonizers, resulting in the Balanggiga massacre of US troops in 1901. In retaliation for the massacre, Samar was declared a “howling wilderness” by US Gen. Jacob Smith, who ordered the killing every male over the age of 10 capable of bearing arms. The church bells taken by the US soldiers from the Balanggiga town still remain in American custody and are considered trophies of war. It was in Leyte where Gen. Douglas MacArthur landed with Philippine leaders as the US led the “liberation”of the Philippines from the Japanese colonizers, only to have the Philippine revert to being a US neo-colony saddled with two of the largest overseas US military bases.

The return to Leyte of the US soldiers has been hailed as some kind of “second coming” of MacArthur. Now US troops are helping bring relief goods and evacuating people from disaster-stricken areas. The US was said to be “liberating” the people from hunger and despair.

But behind the humanitarian rhetoric and military show of force is a disturbing agenda by the superpower that calls us its “special friend”. Some have in fact openly praised the US humanitarian efforts as a brilliant way of reestablishing US presence in the Philippines more than two decades after the dismantling of US bases. They have pointed out how the so-called US humanitarian mission came just at the right time, when the US and Philippine governments were negotiating increased US military access to Philippine facilities.

In an eye-opening op-ed piece on USA Today, Jonah Blank said that “deploying military resources for disaster relief is a remarkably effective — and inexpensive — investment in the future.”

One of the largest such deployments in history, the deployment of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and other assets following the Asian tsunami of 2004, is estimated to have cost $857 million. That’s roughly the price of three days’ operations in Afghanistan last year,” Blanks said.

Like any investment, the US hopes to get some positive returns from its engagement in Eastern Visayas, as Blank explains.

The goodwill the tsunami relief brought the U.S. is incalculable. Nearly a decade later, the effort may rank as one of the most concrete reasons Southeast Asian nations trust the long-term U.S. commitment to a strategy of Asian rebalancing. The Obama administration recognizes the value of disaster relief. As the Pentagon attempts to shift more of its weight to the Asian Pacific region while balancing a shrinking budget, this could turn out to be one of the best decisions it could make,” Blank said.

Blank by the way describes himself as a “senior political scientist” for the conservative think-tank RAND Corporation which provides research for the US armed forces and is funded by the US government. He has also worked as a policy director for the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Jonathan Bogais of the University of Sydney also situates the US deployment in Eastern Visayas within the ongoing negotiations for greater US military access to the Philippines. He cites the rotational presence of US troops in Mindanao, the setting up of a US private defense contractor in Subic to service US warships, and the tensions between China and the Philippines as current issues related to the expanding US presence in the country.

In the midst of this humanitarian tragedy, Typhoon Haiyan has delivered the means for the US to show solidarity to its Pacific ally. It has also allowed the US to send a clear message to China that it has the muscle needed to intervene at short notice in the region to protect its national interest if it feels it necessary,” Bogais said.

It is clear that the national interest Bogias was refering to is not the Philippines’ own but rather the US’ strategic economic and security interests in Asia.

In another article entitled “Military’s aid operations help promote US interests”, Dan De Luce of the Agence France-Presse notes that “the rapid deployment of US naval ships, cargo planes, helicopters and troops to the Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan underscores America’s growing emphasis on disaster relief missions.These are seen as a strategic tool, allowing the United States to exert ‘soft power’ through means usually tied to ‘hard power’.”

“The US military’s relief efforts in the storm-ravaged Philippines will save lives, but also illustrate how humanitarian operations promote Washington’s interests in the Asia-Pacific,” the aritcle said.

That growing emphasis on disaster response is also evident during the annual Balikatan exercies between the US and the Philippines and has been used a justification for the permanent and continuing presence of the US military in the country under the Visiting Forces Agreement. In the course of these exercises, the US is able to project its military power in the region and asserts its role as a Pacific power.

“This (disaster response) is a classic example of why we need to be forward deployed and forward engaged, why we conduct theatre security cooperation, why we establish these relationships,” De Luce quotes a senior Marine Corps official.

“The speed with which US forces are able to respond to Typhoon Haiyan highlights the importance of the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises we carry out regularly in the Asia-Pacific,” de Luce quotes Pentagon spokesman George Little told a news conference Tuesday.

De Luce too notes that the US deployment in Eastern Visayas takes place during the negotiations for expanded US access to the Philippines’ bases and ports.

Finally, we have Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario to confirm our suspicions.

“What [we have seen] in Central Philippines as a result of this typhoon, and the assistance provided in terms of relief and rescue operation … demonstrates the need for this framework agreement that we are working out with the United States for increased rotational presence. It accentuates one of the main purposes of this framework, which is to make humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and response one of the major aspects of this agreement,” del Rosario told the media.

Del Rosario is practically begging the US military to reestablish permanent bases in the country. After all, the Philippines is visited by typhoons every year, apart from being part of the earthquake belt. Disasters are almost a certainty in this country.

From a negotiating standpoint, Del Rosario just showed the other side that we need them more than they need us. He just laid all his cards on the table and gave the US the upper hand.

Del Rosario also affirms a well-known fact, that the Aquino government does not have any long-term plans for disaster preparedness and would likely just wait for the next US aircraft carrier to bail us out in the event of another calamity. Disaster response, a basic function of the national government, is now dependent on a foreign army.

Now some would argue that philanthropy is philanthropy, whatever the motives are. Those C-130’s and Osprey’s still delivered relief to storm-ravaged communities, whatever geopolitical interests are at stake. Who could dispute the fact that typhoon victims were airlifted out of the province? Or that relief goods were air-dropped from US helicopters?

American activist and blogger David L. Swanson has this to say in reaction to the US deployment: “Good will is dependent on not dominating people militarily and economically — yet that seems to be exactly the goal (of the operations)”. He calls Blank’s earlier suggestions of using the relief operations to boost US presence in the Philippines as “taking advantage of the suffering Filipinos”.

As de Luce said in his AFP article, the US relief mission saved lives, but in the process promoted US geo-political interests. Military deployment is not always about humanitarian assistance. The primary objective of military deployment is war, or the preparation for war, which is what the US is undertaking through its rebalancing or pivot towards Asia. The US is pre-positioning troops and weapons in Asia not because it wants to help the next country that would be hit by a storm, but because it wants to strengthen its position as a global power, capable of imposing its will on other countries. 

With del Rosario’s latest statements, it now seems that the Philippines is close to concluding an agreement that would allow de facto US basing in Subic, Clark and other Philippine facilities. To make the proposal acceptable, the Aquino government will simply flash images of Haiyan and Tacloban. Never mind developing self-reliance and the capacity to prepare for future calamities. Never mind securing the people at the first instance, even before foreign assistance arrives. Never mind sovereignty.

Aquino merely has to invoke his government’s incompetence to justify its subservience. ###

 

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