MANILA, July 1, 2013 (PHILSTAR) By Alexis Romero - ‘Allies needed vs bullies’: They’re near our doorstep – DND chief.

The country needs stronger military partnerships with its allies while building up its own defense capabilities in the face of “bullying” by an “oppressive” China, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin (photo) said yesterday.

Gazmin’s declaration came on the heels of an announcement that the United States and other allies would be given access to the country’s air and naval facilities, particularly at two former US bases in Clark and Subic, to counter China’s expanding presence in Philippine waters.

“At this point, we cannot stand alone. We need to form alliances. If we don’t, bigger forces will bully us, and that is happening now,” Gazmin told reporters in Filipino yesterday.

He called China “an oppressive neighbor” that has already trespassed into the Philippines’ “garage.”

“While we are filing cases (before an international tribunal) and at the same time building up our capability to address our security concerns, it’s important that we collaborate with other countries friendly and sympathetic to us,” he said.

He bewailed that Chinese vessels have remained in Philippine territorial waters despite an arbitration case filed by the government.

“We brought this up before the court but in spite of that, they (Chinese) are still there. They refuse to leave. What will we do? Are we going to wait for them to enter our doorstep?”

Gazmin clarified that there is no plan to build new bases since the Constitution prohibits it. He said the access arrangement was brought up during the Two Plus Two Ministerial Consultations held in Washington last year. The agreement is in line with plans to increase the rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines.

At least one other civilian facility – the Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro – may be made available for use by US forces.

Gazmin said their legal team is carefully studying the wording of the access agreement, which aims to allow US assets like fighter jets to refuel in the country.

The Philippines is also strengthening its defense ties with Japan, which is also embroiled in a territorial dispute with China.

Japanese defense minister Itsunori Onodera earlier said the two countries would cooperate in terms of defense of remote islands and territorial seas.

No China link

At Malacañang, however, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the government is not trying to antagonize China with its plan to give the US and other allies access to Philippine military bases.

“At this point, what we do within our territory is perfectly within our rights and as such, we see no reason why it should raise any particular tensions,” Valte said in a press briefing yesterday. “Other countries must have respect for that.”

She said it’s not only in the Philippines that the US is increasing the “rotational presence” of its forces, citing Washington’s announcement of a pivot to Asia policy.

“So knowing that there has already been an agreement on increased rotational presence, the DND is tasked with looking at how to operationalize this particular aspect and what was mentioned by Secretary Gazmin is but one of the modalities that they are looking into in order to operationalize that,” Valte said.

She stressed that any initiative or action would be in accordance with the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US.

She stressed that details of an access agreement under the VFA were still being threshed out and there’s nothing final yet on the reported plan to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay at the cost of P10 billion.

“They are still studying, they are still in the process of looking at these things,” Valte said, referring to the officials involved in the plan.

Constitutional question

For Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, the plan for greater US presence in the country would raise constitutional questions, especially if it would involve establishing new military facilities or bases for use by US forces.

“What we have is a Visiting Forces Agreement. VFA does not provide the presence of any foreign military bases,” Enrile said.

He said the 1987 Constitution strictly prohibits the establishment of any foreign military bases in the country.

“I don’t know if we can establish a refueling station for them (Americans). They can visit and refuel here, but to establish their facility in the Philippines, that is only a subterfuge in a sense that there is a prohibition in the Constitution,” Enrile said.

He said that even under the VFA, the US military may refuel in the country but it cannot establish its own refueling facilities.

Senators Panfilo Lacson and Vicente Sotto III said executive officials should first consult the Senate before pushing through with the plan – even if it doesn’t need the chamber’s approval.

Lacson said Malacañang or the DND should let the Senate know every move they make regarding the matter out of inter-departmental courtesy.

Lacson had served as chairman of the Senate committee on national defense and security.

“If there are activities that are not covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement, this should be known by the Senate,” Sotto said.

Party-list lawmakers slammed the so-called “access arrangements” with the US and Japan, saying the scheme is tantamount to setting up foreign military bases in the country.

“What’s in a name? Access arrangements, military exercises or routine port calls – they all mean the same thing, translating to the unhampered use of facilities and structures in Philippine territory for foreign military use,” Gabriela party-list Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan said in a statement.

“It means allowing unlimited foreign military basing in the Philippines,” she said. “These so called access arrangements are so vague that it appears to expand the Visiting Forces Agreement.”

Joint US-Philippine military exercises in disputed areas like Panatag Shoal would only give China more excuse to flex its military muscle in the region, thus further raising tension, she said.

“We shall now become a magnet of aggression when territorial conflicts with China and other countries could be resolved through diplomatic and nonmilitary forms,” she pointed out.

Bayan Muna Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlo Zarate said in a joint statement that it would be “a shameful act of national betrayal if President Aquino will overturn the 1991 historic verdict of the people and the Philippine Senate against the US bases by turning Philippine bases and facilities into American military outposts.”

Anakpawis party-list Rep. Fernando Hicap, for his part, asked the DND to divulge the details of the access agreement.

A statement from the Communist Party of the Philippines also said an increased US presence in the Philippines would further complicate the West Philippine Sea dispute.

“It is provoking China to be more aggressive in its defense of its territories and push beyond its sea borders,” the CPP said.

Last year, the US bared plans to deploy a majority of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020.

Then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US naval assets would be realigned from a roughly 50-50 split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about 60-40 in favor of the Pacific.

CARAT starts today

Meanwhile, Philippine and US forces begin today their joint military exercise called Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training (CARAT) near Panatag Shoal.

Joining the naval maneuver are Philippine Navy flagship BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and the coast guard’s BRP EDSA-2.

The US ships involved in the exercise are USS Fitzgerald, a guided-missile destroyer; and USNS Salvor and USN Safeguard.

CARAT-Philippines spokesman Ensign Bernard Sabado said the event is closed to media.

The ceremonies launching the war games were held on Thursday in a function hall called “Beijing Room” of a Chinese restaurant in Subic.- With Aurea Calica, Marvin Sy, Paolo Romero, Jaime Laude, Jose Rodel Clapano

Cha-cha needed for access to Phl military bases – JPE By Christina Mendez (The Philippine Star) | Updated July 1, 2013 - 12:00am

Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile

MANILA, Philippines - Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile believes a constitutional amendment is needed to allow the United States, Japan and other allies to have access to military bases in the Philippines.

“We have to enter into a treaty arrangement and craft a different type of system where we can probably set up facilities that will be usable by the allied forces of the Philippines, whenever they visit the Philippines,” he said.

“If the bases will be Philippine military bases, then what is the need for putting up a facility to service the troops of other countries? I do not know whether we can do that in the Mutual Defense Treaty.”

Enrile doubted whether the US or any other ally can be granted access to Philippine military bases.

“I do not know whether you can do that,” he said. “That will become an issue before the Supreme Court.”

Enrile said foreign military bases are prohibited under the present Constitution.

The Visiting Forces Agreement does not contemplate the existence of permanent foreign military troops in the Philippines, he added.

Senators agree that the VFA is “controlling document” in discussing the proposal of the defense department to provide military access to the US and other allies.

Sen. Franklin Drilon said the parameters, details and issues regarding any ongoing or proposed activity must be resolved on the basis of the VFA.

“The situation on the ground must be tested against the standards set in the VFA and our Constitution,” he said.

Drilon said any arrangement allowing military bases without a treaty must be rejected as contrary to the Constitution.

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said the rationale of the access agreement must be laid out.

“Once justified, we can start discussing the legal framework for it. If the access arrangement could be reduced to an implementing guideline of a prior agreement, then it would be less complicated,” he said.

Trillanes said the access arrangement is just part of intra-alliance operability exercise, not a preparation for war.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan said the consequences of clear foreign, security, and economic policies and if they serve the national and public interest must be determined.

He wants to know if such move is allowed under the Constitution and international law; if it’s clear in all bilateral and multilateral security and economic agreements, including the Mutual Defense Treaty and VFA.

Sen. Sergio Osmeña agrees there’s need to define temporary basing, length of time, type of facilities and number of personnel.

No stopping China

A defense expert said yesterday an access agreement with the US would not stop China from reinforcing maritime patrols in the West Philippine Sea.

However, Rommel Banlaoi, Philippine Association of Chinese Studies vice president told The STAR the agreement could prod China to exercise restraint.

“The access agreement with the US will not prevent China from increasing its maritime patrols in the South China Sea,” he said.

“But it will compel China to exercise self-restraint in making provocative actions or aggressive moves in the disputed waters.”

Last week, the government said it is ready to provide the US and other allies access to bases to counter China’s aggressive activities.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Philippine and US officials discussed the access agreement during the Two Plus Two ministerial meeting in Washington last year.

Banlaoi said China is not likely to leave the disputed areas it is now occupying.

“Current domestic realities in China amidst popular nationalism will not prod China to leave Philippine land features it occupies in the KIG (Kalayaan Island Group),” he said.

“That applies also with Vietnam. No claimants will leave the contested areas they presently occupy.”

Banlaoi said the Philippines could only drive away the Chinese by winning a war.

“If the Philippines can win a war, it can force China to leave KIG areas,” he said. “But war is not an option for the Philippines for obvious reasons.”

Banlaoi said Vietnam left an area in the Paracels after China defeated it in a war.

“Complex disputes in the South China Sea can only be peacefully settled through direct negotiations or international arbitration,” he said.

China has been occupying Philippine-owned areas to asset its territorial claim, which covers practically the entire West Philippine Sea.

Despite China’s creeping invasion of its territory, the Philippines can only file diplomatic protests and arbitration case.

Department of National Defense (DND) spokesman Peter Galvez said the government is carefully studying the agreement to ensure that it would be advantageous to the country.

“This (agreement) will help us especially with our current regional security situation,” he said.

“We were bullied. We are being bullied by our neighbor but other than that, we also have to look after our own interest.

“We will always make sure that the plans, whatever plans that will be made will also be advantageous to us.”

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) said the access plan could provoke China and further complicate the situation in the West Philippine Sea.

“By actively supporting the US military buildup in the Asia-Pacific and allowing it to use the Philippines as a platform for US naval operations in the region, the Aquino government has made the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes more difficult to attain,” the CPP said.

“It is provoking China to be more aggressive in its defense of its territories and push beyond its sea borders.”

China has strengthened its presence in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales and Ayungin Shoal off Palawan.

It has also built structures in Panganiban Reef, about 70 nautical miles from Palawan and Subi Reef, an islet 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-asa island. –With Alexis Romero

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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