DEADLOCK BREAKER? | Yolanda loosens knots in talks for greater US military presence

November 26, 2013 10:50 AM

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By: Pots de Leon, November 25, 2013 4:08 PM

MANILA – Days before super typhoon Yolanda unleashed deadly winds and storm surges that killed more than 4,000 people - and still counting - and flattened entire communities in five regions, Philippine and United States negotiators had reached an impasse in efforts to forge a framework agreement on increased US military rotational presence in the country. Now, officials from both sides say, the post-Yolanda work into which both sides have been thrust may yet allow the talks to resume smoothly.

Days after the deadly typhoon struck, thousands of US forces on rest and recreation in an aircraft carrier in Asia were quickly recalled to duty - thus it was that the US troops, with their C-130s and Ospreys, provided vital support in ferrying food and water to hungry, homeless storm survivors in remote villages; and transported the wounded to hospitals.

In the view of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, what happened further demonstrated the need for a new military framework agreement on an increased US rotational presence in the Philippines. The DFA chief made the remarks in a press conference with a visiting US congressional delegation headed by Representatives Chris Smith of New Jersey, Al Green of Texas and Trent Franks of Arizona.

The congressional delegation is in the country to further express the sympathies of the American people, check on the progress of relief operations and assess what else is needed in terms of emergency relief, rehabilitation and rebuilding.

"What [we have seen] in Central Philippines as a result of this typhoon, and the assistance provided in terms of relief and rescue operation . . . demonstrates the need for this framework agreement that we are working out with the United States for increased rotational presence," del Rosario told reporters in a press conference on Monday.

Smith seconded del Rosario's statement, saying Yolanda has brought the Philippines and the US together and boosted ongoing bilateral negotiations between the superpower and its former colony, which once hosted Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base, the largest military installation outside the US mainland. The negotiations for a framework agreement to govern the escalation of US’ so-called “rotational” presence in the country is part of the Obama administration’s strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, re-deploying some of its forces from the Middle East.

"Those of us who are here are very much in favor of the strongest possible bond between the US military and the Philippine military in every aspect, and we know there are negotiations that are under way," Smith said at Monday’s briefing at DFA.

"I think in a paradoxical way the storm has brought all of us even closer together," he added.

In the aftermath of the storm, the US government realized the importance of its strong friendship with the Philippines, Smith said. "So I think every other [negotiations]-- including the economic, the TPP [Trans-Pacific Partnership] and all the other ongoing negotiations, will all be given a positive boost as a direct result of this."

Green, for his part, vowed to do everything to strengthen US-Philippines relations, including efforts to have both militaries working more often together.

"I had the privilege of serving under [the US Congress] armed services committee and as you know. there has been a long, strong historical commitment between our military in America and military in the Philippines. And we are deeply committed . . . to try to do everything that we can to solidify that more and more," he said.

He stressed that the agreement on increased rotational presence could be the key to bringing the US and Philippine military together.

"I think it is really important to take every opportunity we have, including this one. to bring our military efforts close together, because we certainly not only have great common potential points to deal with, but we have a great commitment to …. move forward in the peace effort," Green said.

The negotiations for the US increased rotational presence in the Philippines had been covered in three meetings, twice in Manila and once in Washington, but hit a snag days before Yolanda struck Eastern and Central Visayas, especially Leyte and Samar provinces.

This was confirmed by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin two days before Typhoon Yolanda struck Visayas on November 8. He said the impasse occurred because of the US' failure to "clearly agree" to Philippine control over and access to the temporary US facilities that will be set up in the country, once the framework agreement takes effect.

However, Gazmin was confident that further negotiations could iron out all these issues before the agreement is signed. He explained that the "major idea" would be for the Philippines to maximize the benefits of the framework agreement.

The deadlock also happened just as nationalists aired concerns about the constitutionality of the agreement. Some sectors warned it effectively allows Washington to re-establish bases in the country, over 20 years after the Philippine Senate voted against extending the bases treaty in Sept. 1991.

Article XVIII, Section 25 of the Constitution declares: “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

Meanwhile, officials see this framework agreement in progress as possibly reinforcing the over 60-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement.

The MDT has often been invoked by quarters who believe the US should protect the Philippines against what is obviously China's increasingly aggressive presence in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The MDT compels both countries to come to each other's aid in case of an attack by a third party.


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