By another name: US bases in the Philippines


By Daniel B. Schirmer

Philippine-US relations appear to be on the verge of a radical and retrogressive shift — reinstating US military dominance of the island nation after it had been seriously challenged by the Philippine Senate's defeat of the bases treaty in 1991.

The pivot of this threatening reversion is an "Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement" (ACSA) currently under discussion. ACSA appears to be a decisive escalation of a process opened up in November 1992, when the Pentagon began an attempt to recoup its loss of 1991 by an arrangement giving the US military access to Philippine ports, airfields, and military installations.

The arrangement of 1992 took the form of an agreement between the executives of the two countries. Prior to the Philippine constitution of 1987, arrangements for US bases had also taken this form. But the post-Marcos constitution had mandated that no foreign military presence could occur except as a result of a treaty passed by a 2/3 vote of the Senate.

The access agreement, according to its Philippine and US supporters, derived legitimacy from a Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, a relic of the Cold War. It was a meeting of the Mutual Defense Board, a body of Philippine and US military officials set up under the treaty, that made public the access agreement of 1992.

The ACSA first draft was published in the Manila Times of November 25, 1994. According to its terms the Philippine military is to provide "logistics support, supplies and services" to the military of the United States, and in return the military of the United States is to provide the same to the Philippines.

Because of its strategic central location in Asia, the Philippines has served as a staging area or source of supply to US military interventions in the region for nearly one hundred years.

In 1945, as the United States was preparing to re-establish its military presence in the Philippines after the Japanese occupation of World War II, the US Joint Chiefs of Staff wrote: "The United States bases in the Philippines should be considered not merely as outposts, but as springboards from which the United States armed forces may be projected".

The terms of ACSA bind the Philippines to give continued service to US wars and interventions in the Asia-Pacific region in accordance with the Philippine-US Treaty of Mutual Defense. (In 1951, the year of its adoption, the Treaty was aimed at the perceived threat of Soviet expansion, and it later drew Philippine military personnel to US wars in both Korea and Vietnam.)

It was US Admiral Charles R. Larson who first gave public notice that the Pentagon was re-establishing, via access, its former use of the Philippines as a springboard for US power projection. He revealed this at a press conference following a meeting of the Mutual Defense Board in June 1993. Larson took note of "brewing conflicts" in the Mideast and Korea and said that Washington was prepared to send troops to both places. Then he declared: "The Philippines may be used as a staging area for US military operations should the US initiate involvement in those areas".

On November 12, 1994, Philippine defence minister de Villa told the press that the agreement was drafted in 1993 at the instance of the US panel of the Mutual Defense Board. This was the Philippine minister's first public reference to the new agreement and came only after the US Ambassador to the Philippines, John Negroponte, had announced its existence two days before.

Negroponte's announcement came at the very height of adverse public reaction to reports that Washington intended to impose another, expanded form of access on the Philippines: prepositioning, or the stockpiling of US war materiel, using ships as floating depots in foreign waters.

On November 5 Winston Lord, assistant secretary of state for east Asia and Pacific affairs, held a press conference in which he discussed President Clinton's coming visit to the Philippines on November 12-13. Turning to the question of prepositioning, recently refused by Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, Lord said the United States was still looking for other locations in Asia, adding, "We have other options".

Senator Wigberto Tanada, a leading opponent of both bases and access, told the press prepositioning "would completely nullify the Senate's decision in 1991 regarding the bases treaty", and "make our country a bodega (storeroom) for deadly US weapons against countries deemed unfriendly to the US but not necessarily our enemies". The Philippine Star reported members of the Senate unanimous in their opposition to the proposal. Newspaper editors and columnists spoke out in protest as did anti-bases, anti-access organisations like the Nuclear Free Philippines Coalition.

It was at this moment that Ambassador Negroponte introduced ACSA to the Philippine public. In the discussion that followed, President Ramos expressed support "in principle" for this new proposal, while foreign secretary Romulo argued for it because of the gain it would bring the Philippines from the sale of supplies and services.

While editors and columnists again joined members of the Senate in expressing disapproval, protesters took to the streets, linking their opposition to prepositioning and ACSA to the visit of President Clinton. On November 11 at least 1000 people marched on the US Embassy to protest the visit, and on the 12th rallies took place throughout Manila. On the 13th they massed at the Manila Hotel and Malacanang Palace, where Clinton was scheduled to appear.

Police armed with tear gas and truncheons met demonstrators everywhere, and as a result a number suffered injuries. "The violent dispersal of several demonstrations", wrote Today, "recalled protest rallies during the Marcos dictatorship".

A week later, when defense secretary de Villa testified before a joint hearing of the foreign relations and defense committees of the Senate, there was little doubt that the opposition had given the agreement's supporters a setback.

When ACSA had been first announced General de Villa, had defended it, saying it would not allow stockpiling of weapons, would not lead to a return of the US military presence and would respect the Philippine constitution. A week later he told the senators that he found it necessary to reject ACSA because of "ambiguities" in its first draft.

This would have to be revised to clearly differentiate the storage mentioned in the text from any suggestion of stockpiling. The draft would also have to be rid of any taint of automatic grants. He would have to send it back to the Mutual Defense Board for revision, and it could not possibly be signed by December 15 (the date set by Ambassador Negroponte).

Evidently, however, some Philippine defense officials did not put too much hope in de Villa's plans to deal with ambiguities, nor did they seem overly enthusiastic about ACSA itself, as reported in the Manila Times of November 23:

"Sources involved in previous bases talks say if the language used by the US is ambiguous, the ambiguity is deliberate. That is how the US operates when it comes to bases agreements ... Likewise a high defense official involved in previous talks says that when the US military says 'access', they actually mean 'presence', or arrangements that would result in bases under another name."

De Villa's manoeuvre gave support to the main line put forward by ACSA's two principal proponents, President Ramos and Ambassador Negroponte. This was to the effect that ACSA was merely a routine affair of supply and refuelling, similar, said Negroponte, to agreements the US had with South Korea, Singapore and Australia.

But to say that ACSA was merely an ordinary affair of supply and refuelling was to hide its unique and decisive function: the restoration to the US military of its use of the Philippines as a stepping stone for intervention in Asia and the Mideast.

Even before he announced and defended ACSA, Ambassador Negroponte's public discussion of US access policy lacked credibility. In May 1994, as former Mayor Gordon of Olongapo, the city near Subic, was touring the United States to drum up investment for the converted base area, he let slip that US warships would soon be docking at Subic for supplies and repairs.

On November 25 the Manila Times printed the text of ACSA. On November 12, after Negroponte's announcement, the editor of the Philippine Star had called for the Philippine government to release the text of ACSA. But it was a representative of the free press of Manila, not the Ramos government, that took this step. Considering the Pentagon's policy of keeping all access agreements classified and its high-placed friends in the Philippine government, the move of the Manila Times was a bold one.

The Manila Times editorial that accompanied the text led off with a description of what it called three "major loopholes" in the document. The second and third of these warned that ACSA could bring the Philippines an open-ended stay of US troops, and visits by nuclear-armed US warships, both banned by the constitution.

ACSA brought with it something new, the detailed commitment of the Philippine military to aid the US military "during times of active hostilities." In its editorial the Times gave first place to a warning of this eventuality:

"The original draft could involve us in a war not of our own choosing or making. The draft requires us to service US logistics needs for training and operations, and even in the event of "unforeseen circumstances or exigencies" — perhaps a polite euphemism for war."

In the past three years President Ramos has packed the Philippine government with active and retired military officers, even as the US military imposed access on the Philippines. There can be no doubt that the continued militarisation of the Philippine government has strengthened the official hold of US access policy.

In addition Malacanang has entered into agreements for joint military exercises with such neighbouring states as Malaysia and Singapore, and these can only have served to encourage public acceptance of the close Philippine-US military engagement ACSA entails. War scares over the Spratly Islands have also had the effect of promoting the military emphasis in Philippine government policy.

In spite of all this, overt political support for ACSA has been largely confined to high officials in the Philippine government and military. Arrayed against these have been a vocal opposition in the Philippine Congress and press, and a volatile popular resistance.

As Defense Secretary de Villa explained, there are three stages of access: port visits, supplies and services, and prepositioning. The Pentagon and its Philippine friends have set the first two in place. Why not — after a decent interval — the third? However that may be, it must not forgotten that, even without prepositioning, ACSA accomplishes what is uniquely important for the US military in relation to the Philippines: its restoration as a base for intervention.
[From Philippine Bases Network and Friends of the Filipino People.]