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US to be allowed to build facilities in Philippines military bases

THE government will let the US build facilities inside Philippine military bases, under a pact that would boost the American troop presence there at a time of rising tensions with China.

Philippines concern about access to US facilities on its bases was “sufficiently addressed” and the two countries will hold further talks later this month as they seek to wrap up an agreement, Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said at a briefing on Friday.

“It’s safe to say there is already consensus” on the access issue.

The negotiations come as a territorial dispute escalates between the Philippines and China over resource-rich shoals on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The Philippines, a US treaty ally, lacks the military power to deter China from contested waters rich in oil, gas and fish, and has asked the United Nations to rule on disputes, a process China has rejected.

Chinese ships used water canons in January to drive Filipino fishermen away from the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippines’s military said on February 24. China warned off two Philippine boats near the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) this week, its Foreign Ministry said on March 10.

The Philippines’s foreign affairs department summoned China’s ambassador to Manila to object to China’s latest action and asked it to “desist from any further interference” at the shoal, the agency said on March 11. Last month it also summoned the envoy over the water canon incident, calling it an act of harassment.

Strong signal

CHINA has the right to drive Philippines’s ships away from the Second Thomas Shoal, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Friday in a statement on its web site, quoting Spokesman Qin Gang. The Philippines sent ships carrying materials to the shoal to build facilities there, a move that infringes China’s rights and is a provocation, Qin said.

“The defense pact would be a strong political signal to China that the US is on our side,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said by telephone. “The deal may allow American access to more of the Philippines’s military bases, which also benefits the US in its Asian pivot strategy.”

Facilities to be built by the US inside Philippines bases will be for joint use, Batino said. “Negotiations just like this one are very fluid and we cannot have a definitive timeline when we will finish this.”

Securing US facilities in the Philippines was one of the remaining issues that the parties needed to address, J. Eduardo Malaya, a member of the Philippines’s negotiating panel and the Philippines ambassador to Malaysia, said at the same briefing.

The US ended its permanent military presence in the Philippines with the closing of the Subic Bay base after the lease ended in 1991. The US rotates 500 troops in Mindanao each year to aid in counterterrorism operations, while 6,500 come annually for exercises, according to the Philippines’s military.

The Philippines is very close to finishing the pact with the US, President Aquino said in an interview on February 19. Negotiators may seek to wrap up a deal before US President Barack Obama visits the Philippines in April as part of a trip to the region that also takes in Japan.

No exclusivity

AMERICAN troops rotating in the country will not exercise exclusivity over the facilities inside military camps that they will be using while in the country.

This assurance was made on Friday by members of the panel negotiating for the increased rotational presence of US soldiers into the country and their equipment’s access to camps.

“It would be safe to say there is already consensus for language to be included that would assure access by Philippines authorities over the location provided to US troops,” Batino said.

“The issue of access by Philippine authorities has always been a primordial concern for the Philippines panel. Right from the beginning, we have voiced this out to the US panel that this would be an important requirement,” he said.

Malaya, on the other hand, said that since the facilities would be inside military camps, then securing the facilities would be a shared responsibility between the US and Philippines militaries.

“At this time, both panels have reached agreement on languaging, and we would be able to hammer down the specifics as to who would be securing what area,” he said.

“But as a concept, access is assured being within Philippines’s military bases, and also the right of base commander to have access to specific areas shared with them has already been agreed in principle by both panels,” he added.

In pushing for access to facilities that will be used by US soldiers, the negotiators may have probably thought about the presence of US Special Forces inside the compound of the headquarters of the Armed Forces Western Mindanao Command, where Filipino soldiers are reportedly denied access to its facilities.

However, Malaya said access to the temporary US facilities inside military camps may not be absolute, saying a base has two features, and these are extra territoriality and exclusivity.

He said that for a facility that will be shared with the US, the Philippines’s laws will prevail over the facility, although there may be some areas of that facility wherein the US may exercise extra territoriality.

In the event that a Filipino or an American commits a violation in such bases, Malaya said the custody should be subjected to the provisions of the Visiting Forces Agreement.

The panel members said they were not in a rush to hammer out the proposed rotational agreement in time for the scheduled visit to the country of President Obama in April, but it would be good if it could be signed by both parties during the visit.

Meanwhile, the USS Blue Ridge, the flagship of the US 7th Fleet, will arrive for a four-day port visit at the Manila South Harbor on March 18.

The US Embassy in Manila, in a statement, said the arrival of the ship highlights the strong historic, community and military connections between the United States and the country.   

The USS Blue Ridge and the 7th Fleet staff are homeported in Yokosuka, Japan, and are responsible for US Navy operations from the International Dateline west to the India-Pakistan border.

USS Blue Ridge is the lead ship of the two Blue Ridge-class command ships of the US Navy, and is the command ship of the United States 7th Fleet.

Her primary role is to provide Command, Control, Communications, Computers, and Intelligence (C4I) support to the commander and staff of the 7th Fleet.

(With Rene Acosta and PNA)

 

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