Defense Agreement USA-Philippines
U.S. Forces Would Return on 'Rotational' Basis
Opposition to American military involvement in the Philippines forced Washington to abandon what once was its largest overseas Navy base, Subic Bay, in 1992, along with the rest of its military network in the country.
Now, more than two decades later, Manila is urging Washington to come back, and not just to Subic.
That change of heart, driven by worsening fears over China's military rise, forms the backdrop to President Barack Obama's two-day trip to Manila starting Monday, the first by a U.S. president since 2003.
The centerpiece of the trip is expected to be the signing of a new Agreement on Enhanced Defense Cooperation that would pave the way for U.S. forces to return to the Philippines, albeit on a rotational basis. After nine months of negotiations, Manila and Washington announced in early April that they had produced a draft of the agreement, fueling expectations that the pact would be formally signed during Mr. Obama's visit.
While details of the size and locations of any U.S. deployments haven't yet been made public, the Philippine government has stressed that it wouldn't turn back the clock to the days when the U.S. military ran its own installations here. The Philippine Senate tore up its long-standing security treaty with the U.S. in September 1991, effectively ordering the Americans to wind up their extensive military bases in the country.
With foreign bases now banned by the national constitution, U.S. forces would instead be granted access to existing Philippine bases, over which Manila will retain ultimate control. The U.S. would be able to build new facilities on existing bases to store humanitarian and disaster relief equipment.
Although there is a 700-strong U.S. counterterrorism unit active in the southern Philippines as part of a post-9/11 agreement, it is only allowed in an advisory role.
There is still some resistance to bringing the Americans back in bigger numbers. Some of the nationalist politicians who lobbied to oust the U.S. two decades ago haven't changed their views, and some constitutional experts question the legality of any potential new pact. Small-scale antiwar protests are expected during Mr. Obama's visit.
U.S. officials said not to expect any influx of additional American troops after the agreement is signed. Any larger American presence is likely months or even years away. "We are not moving back in," one official said.
Washington also faces a tricky balancing act in returning to the Philippines, since it doesn't want to provoke China, which has overlapping territorial claims with the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Public opinion has shifted toward greater support for a U.S. presence in the Philippines as Manila's relationship with Beijing has soured. China has become more assertive in the region, and Beijing and Manila have been locked in a dispute over the Scarborough and Ayungin shoals in the Spratly Islands. China insists that it is merely defending its sovereignty, arguing that it has a centuries-old claim to the South China Sea that Manila can't match. Beijing has refused to participate in a U.N. tribunal initiated by Manila to resolve the impasse.
"Ordinary people in the Philippines have already accepted that China is the threat, and that they took the U.S. for granted," said Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. "The expectation is that the U.S. will act as a deterrent."
In February, Social Weather Stations, a Philippine polling company, reported that trust in America was up to a record plus-82—a net figure that measures the percentage of people who trust the U.S., minus the percentage of people who don't. That was up from a low of plus-19 in 2004. Views of China have become overwhelmingly negative, falling to minus-17, from a peak of plus-19 in 2009, before the South China Sea issue flared.
The same poll also found that 93% of Filipinos wanted their government to take tougher action against China in defense of national sovereignty.
Many Filipinos are hopeful the U.S. won't confine its activities to Subic Bay, and will also consider deploying personnel or equipment to other sites. They include Oyster Bay, on the ribbonlike island of Palawan just outside the so-called nine-dash line marking Beijing's maritime claims, as well as what once was Clark Air Base in Central Luzon and a possible Marine command post at a place called Brooke's Point in southern Palawan.
Last year, the Philippine military announced plans to spend 313 million pesos ($7 million) upgrading Naval Station Carlito Cunanan, a small Philippine Navy outpost at Oyster Bay, so that it could accommodate up to four naval frigates and, potentially, U.S. military personnel.
People familiar with the workings of the base said the upgrade program had yet to begin, though they expressed hope the U.S. defense agreement would expedite matters. As part of a recent exercise, a team of Seabees—U.S. Navy engineers—joined Philippine Navy personnel to build a two-classroom annex for the local elementary school, handing it over in February.
The Philippine Department of National Defense and the U.S. Embassy in Manila declined to comment.
"Anything that brings American troops to Puerto Princesa or Palawan is a welcome thing," said Edward S. Hagedorn, the former mayor of Puerto Princesa, the provincial capital of Palawan. Residents feel vulnerable as China presses its claims to nearby islands, he said.
At Subic Bay, meanwhile, anticipation is rising that American military personnel could once again be present in significant numbers, rather than simply passing through on occasional port calls, as they have in recent years.
The abrupt U.S. departure in 1992 left a void that Subic—then wholly dependent on base income—has struggled to fill. The residents of Olongapo City, where Subic is situated, are still bitter that the Americans, who provided some 25,000 local jobs, were forced to leave.
"The anti-U.S. base people complained, but where were they afterwards when we were going hungry?" asked Olongapo Mayor Rolen C. Paulino.
Subic has been repurposed as a free-trade zone, comprising shipbuilding and maintenance operations, a container port, and other businesses.
Yet dilapidated warehouses with peeling paintwork and long-broken windows still characterize areas of the once-sprawling facility. Cubi Point, formerly a naval air station servicing hundreds of fighter jets and which the U.S. Navy demolished a mountain to build, sits forlorn and unused, except for an occasional light aircraft whirring through.
Nevertheless, Roberto Garcia, chairman of the Subic Bay Municipal Authority, said that an American presence was now mainly desirable from a security, rather than a financial, standpoint.
"This is a crisis situation right now," he said of the pressure being applied by the Chinese, noting that Scarborough Shoal is only 120 miles from Subic Bay
Wall Street Journal