Government News Analysis

American boots off the ground …

In its death throes, US President Barack Obama’s reach of influence has managed to shoot another own goal. The decision by his friends at the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) – giver of aid with strings attached – to postpone its vetting on the fitness of the Philippines as a destination for assistance funding has, predictably, backfired. As we said in our article yesterday – Aid with a chunk of lemon – “… more carrots and sticks from Washington will have no effect. And spiking the aid with a chunk of lemon will certainly not help”.

And it didn’t. It managed to sour what little was left of the US-Philippine relationship under Obama’s stewardship. And so, rather than getting President Rodrigo Duterte to rein-in his war on illegal drugs – apparently, one of Obama Inc’s most pressing concerns; up there evidently with the Hell on Earth of Aleppo, Syria (we won’t go into Obama’s culpability in that theatre) – it managed to seal the fate of long-standing military cooperation between the two countries.

Duterte took time out from his state visit to Cambodia to declare, “We do not need the money” and announced that the skids were now under two military pacts by which US troops are hosted on Philippine bases – the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Explaining that his final decision would come “any day soon”, he stated unambiguously “Bye, bye America and work on the protocols that will eventually move you out of the Philippines… We do not need you. Prepare to leave the Philippines. Prepare for the eventual repeal or abrogation of the VFA”.

The VFA was signed on 27 May 1999. It was initiated to assist US military personnel while in the Philippines – their exemption from visa and passport requirements, for example, and to afford protection from prosecution in Philippine courts for those “visiting” troops for any crimes they commit during their visits.

What it actually facilitated, though, was the indefinite presence of at least 660 US Special Operations Forces on the southern island of Mindanao; carte-blanche access to Philippine waters, ports and docking facilities for American warships; the annual carnivals of war games on land and sea – scores of them to which the Philippines played host to troop numbers in the thousands – and open skies across Philippine airspace for the US Air Force.

The EDCA, was signed 28 April 2014. Boiled down, it provides access for American military personnel to five Philippine bases (originally the US had asked for eight) for a period of 10 years. Unhindered access to Philippine territory for American ships and aircraft was also enshrined in this agreement, as was the facility to store weapons (non-nuclear), ammunition and construction materials.

Both treaties, however, remain deeply unpopular with large sections of the Filipino population, resulting in occasional flare-ups by protestors vehemently opposed to the US presence. Sex crimes committed by members of the American military – such as the 2006 rape of a Filipina by four US marines, and the murder of transsexual by a Marine Private in Olongopo, Subic, in 2014 – were protested nationwide with calls for the troops to leave.

The stated purpose of these agreement is to bolster the US-Philippine alliance. In effect they are add-ons to the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the purpose of which is “to strengthen the fabric of peace” in the Pacific by undertaking to defend each other’s territory in the event of an attack.

Of course, in practical terms it’s nothing of the sort as we’ve seen over several years with China’s incursions into Philippine waters and establishing of bases on Philippine rock outcrops. The US did not “defend” Philippine territory as the treaty requires in any sense – unless it regards the US president’s waffling from some White House podium about Chinese delinquent behaviour as such.

And so, apart from issuing a bill for putting the troops up, there is no real benefit in the US military presence. They do provide some training for the Armed Forces of the Philippines but it’s hard to gauge the true impact of that. Certainly, the US troop presence has been useful when natural disasters have struck, but it’s difficult to see how that warrants a year-round presence.

The main gainer here is – and always has been – the US. Its main purpose is a geopolitical one. Maintaining a military presence in the Philippines augments its wider exposure in the region and adds to its sphere of influence in East and Southeast Asia. Supplementing its airstrike capacity – it has bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam – it’s easy to understand why US military planners half-jokingly refer to the Philippines as its ‘fourth aircraft carrier in the Pacific’.

The MCC’s action – highly publicised for good measure – is likely the last straw as far as relations go between Manila and Washington right now. However, as differences between the Philippines and China were able to be patched up and a new understanding reached once Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, had left the political stage, there’s every chance that the Philippines and the US can start a fresh slate once Obama has exited stage Left (20 January) and Donald Trump becomes Duterte’s new opposite number.

The ultimate future of these agreement, meanwhile, is another matter. And it’ll take some time to unwind them. The VolatilianTM has long been of the view that the EDCA will be scrapped in its present form. For one reason, Duterte has no wish to permit ‘war games’ in and around his country – and particularly now that he’s formed a close alliance with Beijing. After all, those US military spectaculars were really meant to send a message to China; to let her know that Uncle Sam is locked and loaded in her backyard.

Our view remains that they will both be torn up – as Duterte more or less said in his Cambodia announcement. A likely outcome, once Trump’s in charge in Washington, is that a new accord will be sought to replace them – one based on ‘military cooperation and assistance’.

In all of this, the MCC’s postponement of its evaluation of the Philippines’ fitness to receive its funds, is a minor matter. Unlike the troops/bases agreements it has no long-term consequences and in fact, looks like little more than an act of spite. We’re sure they’ve already justified their action – the Progressive-Left from whence they come are extremely proficient in that area. What they’re not so good at – as this graphically shows – is thinking through the ramifications of their actions.

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