US military pact with the Philippines gives Asia 'pivot' some military muscle

A new US military pact with the Philippines will allow US fighter jets and more troops into the country. Both countries want to keep China's regional interests in check.

Aaron Favila/AP
A Filipino activist holds a slogan near the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Philippines, Monday during a rally to oppose the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and US.

The Pentagon’s much-trumpeted strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific – which US officials proclaimed a major shift in American defense policy in 2011 – has often been criticized in the years since as a bold and compelling concept with not much real military muscle behind it. 

That’s why the news Monday that the US has inked a military agreement with the Philippines is seen by defense analysts as a major step forward for the Pentagon’s presence in the region. The terms of the deal allow the US to rotate troops through and pre-position fighter jets and supplies at Filipino bases.

It is an agreement that the Obama administration has been laboring to get signed for some time. The US naval base at Subic Bay, Philippines, was the largest US military installation in the world before the Philippine government ejected the US military in 1991, creating a constitutional amendment to ban foreign military bases.

The new agreement bypasses this ban. The bases do not belong to the US but are being borrowed for a “rotational presence” of troops and equipment. The US military has sent rotations of Special Operations troops to train Filipino soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics against Islamic extremists since 2002.

The 10-year agreement imposes no apparent limits on the number of ships and fighter jets that the US can bring into the country. Those details have yet to be worked out, officials say. 

Critics argue that officials are being deliberately vague with the details in an effort to avoid angering Filipino critics. “We are apprehensive that until now, no copy of the agreement has been provided to the public,” Carol Araullo, the secretary general for a group of some 100 protesters at the US embassy, said in a statement, adding that the Filipino Senate has also “been kept in the dark.”

It’s an agreement that became far more politically viable after typhoon Haiyan – the deadliest on record in the Philippines – left more than 5,000 people dead last November.

In the wake of the storm, the Pentagon rushed in aid, hundreds of Marines, and a US Navy carrier group with 5,000 US troops and 80 aircraft. This garnered much goodwill throughout the country, though some critics complained that the effort was a bid to bolster the US military’s chances of regaining use of its bases. The agreement will allow the Pentagon to pre-position US troops and equipment to better respond to future disasters, US military officials point out. 

The agreement is seen mostly, though, as a pointed message to China, which has had a number of tense standoffs with the Philippines in the South China Sea. President Obama pushed back at this notion Monday following the signing the defense pact in Manila, the last stop on his week-long visit to Asia. “Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China,” Mr. Obama said. “Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected.”

That said, he did not miss an opportunity to take a swipe at what is seen in much of the Philippines as China’s aggression in the region. “As a matter of international law and international norms, we don’t think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes,” he said. “We don’t go around sending ships and threatening folks.”

Concerns over possible Chinese aggression did not prevent protesters from converging on the US embassy Monday to object to the new security arrangement – a painful reminder, they say, of former US military occupation.

Roughly 1 in 10 Filipinos died during the Filipino-American War from 1899 to 1902, protesters point out, and successive US administrations supported the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos until 1986, in large part because he allowed US military bases to stay.

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