Friday, March 21, 2014

The US bases will be back

By Val G. Abelgas
Ulugan Bay naval station
Ulugan Bay naval station
In my previous column, I said the Philippines should expect more aggressive bullying by China in the disputed seas in the coming weeks because the Crimea crisis has divided the focus and forces of the United States between that part of Europe and Asia.
Indeed, on March 9, just a few days after Russian troops seized Crimea, an important province of Ukraine, Chinese ships blocked two Philippine vessels that were transporting food, supplies and replacement Marines to Ayungin Shoal, where the Philippine Marines intentionally grounded the BRP Sierra Madre in 1999 in response to China’s occupation of the Mischief Reef in 1995. A handful of Marines are deployed in the shoal at any given time since.
The Philippines filed a formal protest, but the Chinese government rejected it outright, saying that the Filipino vessels were carrying construction materials and were going to begin construction of structure on Ayungin Shoal, which it said belonged to China.
Ayungin shoal is 105 nautical miles from the coast of Palawan, and is clearly within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone within which a country has exclusive rights to the maritime resources. But China insists that it has indisputable sovereignty over nearly 90 percent of the entire South China Sea as part of its nine-dash line territorial claim.
China has built several permanent structures such as concrete buildings, radar stations, helipads, docks, etc., on at least six islets on the Spratly islands group – at the Cuarteron Reef, Fiery Cross Reef, Gaven Reef, Johnson South Reef, Mischief Reef, and Subi Reef. Ayungin is known internationally as the Second Thomas Shoal and to China as Ren’ai Reef.
Several islets in the South China Sea are being disputed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei.
The March 9 incident marked the second time that Chinese vessels drove away Filipinos from maritime features within the Philippines waters. Earlier this year on Jan. 27, Filipino fishermen were driven away by the CCG using water cannons from Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Panatag shoal or Scarborough shoal, located 118 nautical miles from the coast of Zambales. The Philippines also protested that incident and was also flatly rejected by China.
The Chinese not only rejected the protests but also warned the Philippines to get out of Ayungin Shoal and stop further “provocations.”
“China watches closely and is highly vigilant on further possible provocations in the South China Sea by the Philippines and it must bear all the consequences arising therefrom,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a press conference in Beijing on Monday.
The last two Chinese provocations must have prodded Philippine negotiators to finally allow access of Philippine bases to the United States. The decision has given credence to doubts that the US has allowed the Chinese to bully the Philippines in the past to gain leverage in the negotiations.
With the Chinese literally knocking on the country’s western doorsteps, it was held certain that the Philippines would eventually allow the use of its bases by American troops, hopefully as a deterrent to further provocative actions by China.
The Philippine panel basically gave back the US military bases, which were closed in 1992 after the Philippine Senate rejected the bases treaty on September 16, 1991. Negotiations are still ongoing but Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino, one of the officials negotiating the agreement, told reporters on Friday they were optimistic of agreeing on a pact that will allow US forces to build “structures” on Philippine military bases.
The premature announcement was obviously made with the permission of Malacanang and timed to coincide with the renewed flare-up of the territorial row between China and the Philippines.
The announcement, however, failed to deter the Chinese, who issued the warning to the Philippines to get out of Ayungin a day after Batino’s statement. But that’s probably because the agreement has not been finalized yet and the Americans are not yet stationed in the bases.
Despite repeated pronouncements by Malacanang, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Armed Forces of the Philippines that the Americans would only be allowed the use of the Philippine bases and wouldn’t have permanent bases, recent pronouncements by the Department of National Defense seem to say otherwise.
The defense department said it would upgrade a Philippine navy base in the western coast of Palawan to serve “big vessels” and may allow US Marines to be stationed in the base, later identified to be at Oyster Bay, one of the bays in a western Palawan gulf called Ulugan Bay.
Navy spokesman Lt. Commander Gregory Fabic said the military will build a P500 million ($11.2 million) port at Ulugan Bay, the Philippine military base nearest to the Spratly Islands.
Aside from transforming Oyster Bay into a mini-Subic Naval Base, the US also wants to convert the 246-hectare Philippine Marine Corps reservation in Samariniana town in Brooke’s Point into a joint marine operational command, officials added.
Aside from Samariniana and Oyster Bay, the US also wants to help develop Philippine facilities in Macarascas, Puerto Princesa and Tarumpitao Point in Rizal and San Vicente, all in Palawan.
These bases, or mini-bases as the DND calls them, are obviously new structures that are going to be built for American ships and troops using US funds under the guise of “joint marine operational command.”
This would clearly be in violation of Article XVIII, Section 25, of the 1987 Constitution which states that “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.”
We know now that the agreement has been reached, and that only the language of the accord is being discussed so as to go around the constitutional prohibition. Malacanang is even saying that the agreement will come in the form of an executive agreement, and not a treaty, to avoid having to go through Senate ratification or a referendum, which could take years especially since the 2016 presidential election is lurking in the horizon.
The Aquino administration may even allow Congress to convene itself into a constituent assembly for the purpose of “amending its economic provisions.” But what will stop that assembly from inserting a provision allowing foreign bases in the country?
In any case, it seems the country does not have much choice in the face of China’s growing aggressiveness in the region. The Philippines has insisted that the territorial row should be decided through international arbitration and has filed an arbitration case before the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). But China has refused international arbitration and has insisted that the dispute should be settled between the contending countries.
The bullied has obviously accepted the fact that it is no match to the bully, and has decided to call a stronger brother to face the bully. The US bases will be back on Philippine soil. It’s just a matter of time.

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