US Nears Defense Pact with Philippines

In 1991, when the Philippine Congress forced the United States out of the military bases that they had occupied since 1898, they left. But when they did, they went to Leyte and picked up the bronze statues of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and the landing party that had accompanied him on MacArthur’s famed October, 1944 return to drive the Japanese from the islands. US officials took the statues back to the US. It’s unclear what became of them. According to a caretaker and guide at the MacArthur Landing Memorial Park in the city of Palo, the Philippine government was forced to commission the new group of statues, nearly twice life-size, to replace the ones the Americans had taken home in a fit of national pique. Today, 22 years after the ouster, the US and Philippine governments are in the last stages of negotiating a pact, hopefully timed with President Barack Obama’s visit sometime this month, that would formally allow the US to return although in a real sense they have never quite been gone. Although Clark Air Base – already covered with volcanic ash from the Mount Pinatubo explosion – and Subic Bay Naval Base were turned over to the Philippine government, the US continued to maintain a mutual defense treaty and US forces have moved in and out. The details remain shrouded in secrecy, at least partly because Filipino nationalists continue to object to the presence of the US military on their soil. But it appears that the Philippines will permit the US to build facilities inside Filipino military bases to boost the presence of US combat troops in cooperation with the Philippine armed forces. The expected official return comes both as President Obama seeks to pivot the US military presence away from the Middle East to Asia and as tension rises over resource-rich islets in the South China Sea that are claimed by the Philippines and other littoral nations and by China. President Benigno S. Aquino III has told reporters the new defense pact is designed to improve the country’s defense, particularly after China’s increasingly antagonistic stance. In recent weeks, the Chinese have stepped up the confrontation, at one point hosing down Filipino fishermen with high-pressure water cannons to drive them away from the Scarborough Shoal, which is about 200 km from Subic Bay and 2650 km from the nearest point in China. Last week, Filipino Marines in cat-and-mouse maneuvers managed to thread their way past a Chinese blockade to deliver food and other supplies to other Marines based on a dilapidated WWII era vessel grounded on one of the shoals, waving the V for Victory sign at the Chinese as they pushed through. The relationship between the United States and the Philippines remains complicated, however. The US was surprised and irritated when senators led by Juan Ponce Enrile rejected a treaty extending the lease, following denunciations of the American presence as a vestige of colonialism and an affront to Philippine sovereignty. It took two years and billions of dollars in expenses to remove the US presence, including the statues. Most of the naval facilities were moved to Singapore or scattered around other parts of Asia. Nonetheless, with the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon iun the United States, the US presence began to increase with 500 Special Forces troops stationed on Mindanao, training the Filipino military to search for Islamic radicals such as the Abu Sayyaf forces. Roughly 6,500 US troops rotate in to conduct joint military exercises each year although the US troops were barred from combat. They also use Philippine jungles for tropical warfare training. The negotiations have been slowed by US concerns over what access the Filipino military would have to the facilities built and operated on their bases by the US forces. That is because the US military is one of the most highly-trained and sophisticated on the planet, while the Filipino military is under-equipped, ill-trained, often corrupt and badly disciplined. US troops are equipped with sophisticated surveillance and detection equipment, much of which is considered classified. Filipino soldiers use personal cell phones during missions and sometimes give wives, girlfriends and relatives free rein on their bases, causing US troops to bridle. US forces insist on high levels of security and discipline to maintain the equipment, especially since US troops are a lightning rod for terrorists all over the world. Obviously, being locked out of areas on their own bases is going to be a sticking point for prideful Filipino officers, and not without reason. Negotiators are seeking to work out details so that sensitive communications and surveillance equipment will be off limits during operational periods, but that the US troops won’t get their own mess halls and sleeping quarters – probably to be greeted with irritation by a military used to having such exclusive facilities in the Green Zone in Iraq and on Afghan bases. Whether they will bring the statues back is another matter.