MANILA, Philippines (Update 3) — Rival factions of the Philippine Left echo each other in opposing a plan to increase the rotational presence of US troops in the country and allow them to deploy aircraft and ships for disaster and maritime security operations.
But a popular government has thrown its full support behind this in the wake of China's aggressive behavior over disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The Philippines and US panels hold the first round of closed-door talks on Wednesday, August 14, at Camp Aguinaldo to thresh out the details of the new executive agreement. It means Senate approval is not required. They aim to finish the framework within the year.
"We begin our negotiation... with the end in view of coming out with a framework that will further enhance our existing robust defense relations, so I exhort both panels to remain candid and frank so that the outcome of this undertaking will redound to the best interest of our two countries," said defense undersecretary for defense affairs Honorio Azcueta in his opening statement.
Senate President Franklin Drilon and Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr have been supportive of the talks as long as the plan will not violate the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement, the treaty that the Senate ratified to govern the presence of foreign troops in the Philippines.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta, head of the Philippine panel, reiterated this. “We would like to assure the Filipino people that your government is committed to defending and protecting the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said in a statement.
Political activists said the Aquino government is wrong to think that the US will fight with the Philippines against China in case of armed conflict. While the Philippines is quick to surrender its sovereignty, the sole preoccupation of the US is to advance its own agenda, they said.
"Bayan is opposed to any Chinese incursion or occupation of our islands in the West Philippine Sea but bringing in the US as part of the conflict will not be in the service of our national interest. It would further complicate the dispute. It is an invitation for further escalation of confrontation in the West Philippine Sea," Bayan secretary-general Renato Reyes told reporters on Tuesday, August 13.
"The US has huge debts to the Chinese government. How can we expect the US to defend us when their economy is closely tied up to the economy of China," he added.
Reyes led a group of about 30 militants who staged a protest at Camp Aguinaldo, headquarters of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, to show their opposition to the talks.
In the House of Representatives, Akbayan Rep Walden Bello issued a statement sharing Bayan's position and calling the talks a "pact with the devil."
“It is the height of irony that in our collective campaign to secure our sovereignty against China and other foreign aggressors, the very same sovereignty that we try to protect would be the first casualty,” Bello said.
The Philippine and the US have agreed to conduct "high-value and high impact exercises as modality for increased rotational presence." This means more bilateral exercises, "prepositioning of equipment, and development of Philippine facilities, Gazmin added.
For Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, this means military modernization can begin before the the Armed Forces acquires its own modern equipment.
"Maritime security and maritime domain awareness will be given a boost even before we have ships and aircraft we need. And even before we have the advanced and sophisticated hardware we wish for we will know how to operate and maintain them," Del Rosario said on Monday's press conference.
The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is finalizing plans to purchase 12 fighter aircraft from Korea. On top of the two Hamilton-class cutters from the U.S. and the naval helicopters that will arrive in December, the Philippine Navy is also planning to acquire 2 new frigates and possibly a third Hamilton-class cutter.
Aside from Sorreta, the Philippine panel members are Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, Justice Undersecretary Francisco Baraan III and Defense Assistant Secretary Raymund Quilop.
The US panel members are US Department of State Ambassador and Senior Advisor for Security Negotiations and Agreements of Political-Military Affairs Eric John, US Department of State Attorney Advisor Elizabeth Jones, US Department of Defense Brigadier General Joaquin Malavet, and Deputy Legal Counsel of the Office of the Chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Captain Greg Bart.
How about drones?
Long before these talks, US troops have been in and out of the country, specifically in Mindanao. A US military task force holds office at the Western Mindanao Command in Zamboanga City, while the US military has a little-known office right inside Camp Aguinaldo.
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte divulged that the US government previously talked to him about plans to use his city as a launching pad for unmanned aerial vehicles or drones to pursue its campaign against terrorism.
"The US government wanted to use the old airport. I refused. I will not allow them to use our airport for them to launch their drones," Duterte said.
A New York Times article, "The Drone Zone," alleged that the US conducted lethal drone operations in the Philippines. It was immediately denied by US military officers, Filipino intelligence officials and the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
They said drones are used in the Philippines only for surveillance.
In an exclusive report citing intelligence sources worldwide, Rappler executive editor Maria Ressa detailed in a 2012 report how a team of US and Filipino soldiers used drones to spy on an Abu Sayyaf camp in Sulu.