By Renato M. Reyes, Jr.
November 12, 2009
Solidarity with typhoon victims? A humanitarian visit? The upcoming 2010 elections? These are just some of the avowed objectives of the visit of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the Philippines from November 12-13. Groups like Bayan however are unconvinced that these are the only reasons why Clinton will be visiting the Philippines.
Hillary is the third top official from Washington to visit the Philippines in a span of six months. The first was US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, then just a month later, Central Intelligence Agency director Leon Panetta.
A July report of the Washington-based think-tank CENTER FOR STRATEGIC & INTERNATIONAL STUDIES may give some insights on the true purpose of the visit of America’s top diplomat.
The CSIS, which describes itself as a “bipartisan, nonprofit organization” founded by David M. Abshire and Admiral Arleigh Burke at the height of the Cold War, is “dedicated to the simple but urgent goal of finding ways for America to survive as a nation”. The institution claims to be “one of the world’s preeminent public policy institutions.”
In its July 2009 report entitled US Alliances and Emerging Partnerships in Southeast Asia: Out of the Shadows, the CSIS gives proposals to the newly-elected Obama administration on how to achieve US interests in Southeast Asia.
The report describes Hillary Clinton’s visit to Indonesia, her first trip abroad as U.S. secretary of state, as a signal that “the Obama administration intends to pay renewed attention to Southeast Asia”, a region with over 550 million people, the world’s largest Muslim nation, an economy of over $1 trillion, and some of the world’s most strategic waterways.
The think-tank believes that “Southeast Asia is a region likely to play a critical role in determining the future of Asia and whether the United States can sustain itself as an Asia-Pacific power.”
The CSIS recommended that the US “seek to reinvigorate its engagement of alliance partners Thailand and the Philippines to test the possibilities of greater strategic convergence and cooperation.”
It also sought to develop bilateral relations to complement US engagement in regional bodies like the ASEAN.
Recent events prove this to be true. During Arroyo’s latest visit to the US, Obama designated the Philippines as country coordinator for US relations in the ASEAN. The bilateral relations with the Philippines were used to further US engagement in a regional platform like the ASEAN.
The report however laments the “legal and other constraints” in the “development” of US-RP defense relations, which includes the presence of US troops in the Philippines. There is a recognition of the controversies sparked by the Subic Rape case and the opposition to the Visiting Forces Agreement.
Following this report, the two-day Clinton visit is likely in line with “reinvigorating US-RP relations” in furtherance of US interests in the region. This encompasses military, diplomatic and economic interests. Reinvigorating relations may mean finding ways for increased US intervention in the Philippines and in the region as a whole.
Obama’s 45-minute meeting with Arroyo, and Clinton’s two-day visit to the Philippines may be intended to make the Philippines “feel important” again as far as US goals in the region are concerned. But beneath the glam and photo-ops offered by such high profile meetings is the stark reality that relations remain unequal between the former colonial master and the former colony.
Still healthy but fraught with difficulty
The report believes that US-RP alliance is “in surprisingly good health” and that it is “in its best shape in 20 years.” However, the report cited some recent problems which the CSIS thought put some strain on US-RP relations.
It criticized the “rampant corruption, lack of strategic thinking and overall degradation of political, economic and military capabilities” as the reasons why countless US diplomats have “thrown up their hands in frustration.”
In its report on the Philippines, the CSIS describes US-RP relations as “fraught with controversy and difficulty”. It blamed a “minority of Leftist politicians”, “media and demonstrations outside the US embassy” for raising questions about US-RP relations and “constraining the development of ties. “
“The rape of a Philippine woman by a U.S. marine at Subic Bay in 2005, and his subsequent conviction in 2006, threatened to destabilize the bilateral relationship as it reminded Filipinos of the more sordid aspects of the U.S. Cold War–era presence. The transfer of Marine Lance Corporal Daniel Smith to the custody of the U.S. embassy upon conviction, pursuant to the Visiting Forces Agreement, also caused controversy and calls for revision or scrapping of the VFA,” it said.
The report also played up what it believes as the predominantly pro-American sentiments in the country. The report condescendingly describes Filipinos as not being able to live without the Americans.
“At a fundamental level, Philippine interlocutors affirmed that Philippine citizens almost universally consider the alliance with the United States to be not only welcome and successful, but also an essential element of Philippine life that they cannot imagine doing without.”
The report cited an unnamed 2007 poll finding that “Filipinos rank first in trusting the US to act responsibly in the world, first in disagreeing that the US is playing the role of world policeman too much, first in supporting long-term US military bases overseas, and third in feeling that the US should continue to be the preeminent world leader in solving international problems.”
Yet despite this alleged dominant pro-US sentiment that is seemingly favorable to the continued US intervention and basing, the report advised against making permanent military bases as the focus of US defense policy towards the Philippines.
Basing without bases
The report cited the US gains in the Balikatan and VFA, especially after the September 11 attacks in the US. “Beginning with the “Balikatan,” or “shoulder-to-shoulder,” joint exercise in February 2002, more than 1,000 U.S. military personnel reengaged on Philippine soil to provide logistical support, intelligence information, military equipment, operational planning assistance, and tactical advice to local Philippine forces fighting the guerrillas. The Philippines became the locus of the only U.S. ground combat forces deployed overseas in direct support of the “global war on terror” besides those engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The think-tank, while not opposed to the idea of permanent military basing noted that it would be politically untenable for the Philippines to allow the return of permanent bases, citing resistance to the idea for the “foreseeable future.”
The report did mention that with the increase in US exercises and activities even a former US ambassador described the US troops presence as being semi-continuous. The CSIS also praised the Philippines for being the “leading supplier” of new US Cooperative Security Locations (CSL) or facilities to which U.S. forces have “ready, regular, and predictable access but of which host nations retain ownership.” The report cited refurbished facilities in Clark and Subic as the potential cites of these CSL’s.
True enough, these former bases are reportedly already being accessed by American military contractors like Blackwater and Corporate Training Unit (CTU), both of which operate in Iraq.
The report actually reinforces earlier analysis that the Philippines continues to provide the US “virtual basing” opportunities. What’s new is that it concedes there will be controversies and difficulties if the US government pushes the issue of formal bases.
First among the recommendations of the CSIS deals with free-trade, a topic that is already on the agenda in the upcoming Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meet that will be attended by Clinton and Obama in Singapore.
“The United States needs to be prepared to react to potential Philippine protectionism, endemic corruption, and position within international economic forums such as APEC, the World Trade Organization, and ASEAN, with steady and patient engagement.”
While acknowledging that US-RP relations are crucial in protecting American interests against emerging powers like China, the report advises US policymakers not to suggest in word in or deed that US-RP relations are aimed at third party like China. “To be comfortable to Manila, strategic relations should be defined, oriented, and couched in constructive terms, rather than “against” any particular country.”
In short, the US does not want us to see the patently obvious.
In the area of defense, the report urges the US government to “continue to develop the quiet progress in U.S.-RP defense relations in recent years.” What is meant here is the “quiet reintroduction of U.S. military forces onto RP territory” which, while under legal restrictions and other constraints, “represents slow but important progress in the relationship over the past decade.”
The report makes reference to “humanitarian assistance/disaster relief exercises” as a good starting point in broadening the scope of the defense partnership between the US and the Philippines. It exposes the so-called Civil Military Operations or “civic actions” by the US troops as being in support of US security goals in the country.
Lt. SG Nancy Gadian, a former Balikatan planner and corruption whistleblower, said as much when she described the role of US troops conducting CMO’s during the Balikatan exercises. It was part of “winning the hearts and minds” of the people so that they would accept the continued presence of US troops engaged in various combat roles in the Philippines.
“The short-term goal should be to assist the Philippines to help itself internally. The long-term goal should be to help it eventually to assist the United States in collective defense, a task not anathema to Manila’s leaders or to the average Filipino in principle,” the report said.
Here we see how the interoperability training the AFP receives is not just for tactical domestic needs (local counter-insurgency), but also for the strategic goal of making the Philippines assist America in the “collective defense” of US interests in the region. If, how and when this will happen is of course unclear.
The report did conceded that the US will not regain formal basing rights within the foreseeable future. It did call on the US government to encourage Manila to find more creative ways of justifying US troop presence in the country, while at the same time being careful as not to be too obvious in wanting to return the formal US bases.
“While the United States should continue to encourage Manila to think more creatively and strategically about the further contributions greater U.S. military presence and access in the Philippines can make to regional peace and stability—and to Manila’s own national security interests—Washington ought to be relatively careful about its basing ambitions to safeguard continued progress in this arena and generally be mindful of its conduct so as not to offend Philippine sensibilities.
While recognizing that formal US bases may not be acceptable at the moment, the report cited other means by which to advance US troop presence en route to more permanence. The report said that the US already enjoys wide access to Philippine military facilities, saying that it has provided strategic benefits and that it can be used “as a productive base on which to develop US strategic presence in the country over time.”
Clearly, the US is here for the long haul. The announcement of US Defense Secretary Robert Gates that 600 US Special Forces, mostly based in various AFP camps in Mindanao, will remain indefinitely in the country is one clear example.
To pull-off the many impositions of the US on the Philippine government, the CSIS recommends an increase in aid funding as a “strategic element” in the relationship. This is perhaps the reason why, despite corruption and gross human rights abuses, the Philippine government is set to receive additional aid from Washington, figuring at a total of $667 million for next year. News reports have cited the Obama administration as removing the human rights requirements placed on $2 million in military aid. There also have been reports that the intended $15 million in military assistance was increased to $30 million by the US House of Representatives.
When the US describes its relations with the Philippines as “fraught with difficulties and controversies”, it does so not because it recognizes the legitimacy of the issues being raised. The “frustration” of some US policymakers stems from the increasing resistance to US impositions .
These controversies, when accumulated, also derail US plans for the Philippines. The 2007 Balikatan exercises was almost scrapped when the issue of Daniel Smith’s detention was not yet resolved in favor of the US.
What is clear from the report is that resistance to US impositions has not gone unnoticed and will be something that Washington will have to deal with in the future. ###