Bases access: US grants PH access to military facilities

MANILA, Philippines (Updated) – The US panel negotiating a military-to-military agreement granted the Philippines access to facilities it will build inside our military bases, according to Philippine panel chairman Pio Lorenzo Batino. 

"It would be safe to say that there is already a consensus for language to be included that would assure access by Philippine authorities over locations provided to the US troops," Batino told reporters in a briefing on Friday, March 14. 

While the Philippine panel allowed the US to construct facilities inside military bases, the US wanted to limit the access of Filipino troops to these facilities. Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said this led to an  "impasse in the talks last year. 

 

The panels hurdled the impasse. They are now in the final stages of negotiations for an agreement that will make way for increased presence of American troops in the Philippines and will allow them to access and build facilities in military bases here.

The treaty allies have agreed on several contentious issues including the scope of access the Filipino troops will be given to facilities the Americans will build and the duration of the agreement. 

"If the negotiations are successfully concluded and that happens before the arrival of President [Barack] Obama, we'll be happy of course," Philippine Ambassador to Austria Lourdes Yparaguirre, a new member of the panel, told reporters in a briefing on Friday, March 14. 

The US president is scheduled to visit the Philippines in April. Talk is rife that the agreement will be signed during his visit, but panel members maintain they are pressured to finalize the agreement before his visit. 

The Philippines has presented the US a "full draft text" of the agreement. The 2 panels will hold another round of negotiations in Manila on March 25, before Obama's visit.

Here are the details of the agreement so far, according to the panel's briefing on Friday.

1. Philippines will have access to facilities the US will build 

Panel chairman Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino guaranteed that mutual access to facilities that the US will be allowed to build inside our military bases. 

"It would be safe to say that there is already a consensus for language to be included that would assure a given, which is access by Philippine authorities over locations provided to the US troops, which would be within AFP facilities. I think the point that we have to focus on is that this concern for the Philippines government had already been sufficiently addressed during the negotiations," said Batino during the briefing. 

Malaya explained that "Philippine authorities" means Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin or officials he will designate. 

"Technically the term is 'duly designated Philippine authorities.' Generally, that would be the Secretary of National Defense or whoever he designates to exercise that right," Malaya said in a followup interview after the panel briefing.

What is being discussed, said Malaya, is the how the two countries will share responsibilities with respect to security. "As a concept, access is assured. The right of the base commander to have access to specic areas will be shared with them. It has already been agreed in principle by both panels," he said. 

"We are discussing some operational safety and security requirements with respect to the exercise of access by the base commander," Malaya added.

2. It is not a base within a base

There have been concerns about access because of previous incidents where Americans limited the access of Filipino troops to areas they were provided.

"The facilities would be used to obtain mutual benefits for the US armed forces and the Philippine armed forces. In this agreement, and also in the implementation of this agreement, it would be a requirement that the presense of US troops would be temporary. With these characteristics we can say that this wont be a base within a base," Batino explained.

3. Privacy of US troops will be respected 

The agreement is geared toward "greater information sharing." Batino said that is an essential part of the agreement. 

Reporters pressed the panel members on the scope of cooperation. Is there exclusivity to communications and intelligence, for example?

However, Batino said there is also a need to respect the privacy of the Americans. He did not elaborate.

3. No agreement yet if deal will be a treaty or executive agreement

The Philippine panel has taken the direction of an executive agreement, meaning it will not need the ratification of the Philippine Senate. 

US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg revealed in February that the panels are still discussing the options. 

Malaya said the US wants to make sure that the agreement is legally binding –  an executive agreement is, the Philippine panel explained. 

Still, Batino said it will not be the panels who will decide if it will be a treaty or an executive agreement. 

"My personal take is that we cannot agree on a legal question. We are negotiating provisions and, as of the latest draft, what we can say is that, at least my belief is that, these provisions partake of the implementing nature of the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement. Based on this, therefore, we will not need the Senate concurrence," Batino said. 

3. Duration of agreement is less than 20 years

Batino said the two panels have agreed on how long the US will be given temporary access to Philippine military bases. But he refused to provide details because of the fluidity of the negotiations. 

Bilateral military agreements with the US typically last 20 years, but the panel said the Philippines is looking at a much shorter timeframe. "Maybe the most we can say is it's shorter than 20 years," said Malaya. 

4. Boarding of ships was not discussed

The boarding of American ships by Philippine authories was not discussed. 

"The concentration of this agreement is the temporary access to be provided by the Philippine government to the US forces. We're concentrating on locations here. Boarding of ships, though related, is not directly under the coverage of this agreement," explained Batino. 

But it may be taken up later on, he said, through "implementing arrangements or even through operational mechanisms."

5. VFA takes care of 'erring' American soldiers

The panels also did not discuss matters of custody and jurisdiction with regard to "erring" American troops. This remains within the coverage of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

"Jurisdiction over erring personnel will be governed by the VFA. What we are talking about here is allowing them access to specific areas, to locations, and the right of Philippine authorities through the base commander or other designated authorities have already been agreed upon," Malaya said. 

Escalating tension

The Philippines has sought the assistance of the US, a treaty ally, against the backdrop of rising tension with China over maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The Philippine and the US are treaty allies with a long history of cooperation. The US used to have bases in the Philippines that allowed the presence of tens of thousands of US troops here. But the Senate voted in 1991 not to renew the treaty. They were able to return in 1999, following the approval of the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows the temporary presence of US troops in the country.

Batino gave assurances that the new agreement is consistent with the Philippine Constitution as well as "mindfulness of the country's historical experiences."

Tension continues to escalate as the Philippines accused the Chinese coast guard of using water cannons against Filipino fishermen in January in an attempt to drive them away from the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough). It is a rocky sandbar located off the coast of Zambales that is now practically occupied by the Chinese coast guard. (READ: PH protests China 'water cannon' incident)

China, for its part, also accused the Philippines of "constructing" in Ayungin Shoal located off Palawan. Chinese coast guard recently blocked civilian ships commissioned by the Philippine Navy to bring food and water to troops manning a grounded warship that has served as a Marines detachment. (READ: China on Ayungin: PH broke its promise)

China is making its claim based on a 9-dash-line map, which the US categorically said it does not recognize. The Philipines has a pending arbitration case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). (READ: What's at stake in our case vs China)

The Philippines is also acquiring critical assets to improve minimum credible defense in the West Philippine Sea. – Rappler.com