Commentary: The Philippines as shield and target


THE US military presence in our country has been sold to us as a shield against external threats to our security. A deterrent against those who would like to use offensive force against us. But every shield can also be a target.

During the Cold War, US military presence in our country was meant to prevent us from falling into the sphere of communist influence. The threat dissolved after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Consequently, the US military bases were booted out of our country after the Senate voted against renewing the treaty allowing their stay.

In The Key Role of US Bases in the Philippines (1984), American political scientist Anthony James Gregor identified three strategic functions of US military presence in our country: “1) to protect a friendly Philippines; 2) to provide a forward defense perimeter for the US; and 3) to establish support installations for supply, repair, and staging services for American forces in East and Southeast Asia.” Two of them aren’t exclusively about our security.

These functions hadn’t changed when our country forged a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the United States in 1999 and an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014.

In both agreements, our territorial and maritime conflict with China were the motivation. China’s construction of a military observation post on Mischief Reef in 1994 served as the impetus for VFA. Meanwhile, the Scarborough Shoal naval standoff incident and China’s growing military presence in the South China Sea served as motivations for the Aquino administration to acceptEDCA. In both instances, US military presence in our country, albeit rotational, was being sold to us as a deterrent against China.

Yet as I pointed out in my column on February 27 (“Is EDCA really a deterrent”), EDCA is not really a deterrent. “Within the four years since EDCA was enforced, we have witnessed the Chinese build artificial islands, structures, and installations on the South China Sea features that they already occupied. EDCA didn’t deter China from militarizing them.”

Even when there were US military bases in Subic and Clark, this deterrence effect was questionable. For example, a declassified 1976 CIA”Intelligence Memorandum on Vietnam’s Intentions in the Spratlys” mentioned that on May 14, 1976 “new Vietnamese communist antiaircraft emplacements fired on a Philippine reconnaissance flight over one of their garrisons.” How come our defense treaty with the US wasn’t able to deter that?

More than being a deterrent, US military presence in our country turns us into a target. As a key logistical support for US forces in East and Southeast Asia, our country has become a legitimate military target to America’s enemies. This was a point former Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile purportedly made to a member of the US National Intelligence Council Analytic Group (NIC/AG).

In a declassified memo dated February 24, 1986, the NIC/AG member with a redacted name, told the chairman of the NIC that when he “met Enrile in 1981 as part of a National War College delegation visiting the Philippines…he launched into a stern denunciation of US policy in the Philippines.” Enrile particularly pointed out that “US bases were only a magnet for a Soviet attack and were absolutely of no benefit to the Philippines.”

Since there’s no longer a Soviet Union, who then could attack us? China. Why? Not because of our territorial skirmish over the Spratlys but because of Taiwan, which is part of China’s core interests, along with Hong Kong, Macao and Tibet.

If ever Taiwan presses for independence from mainland China and an armed conflict ensues, the US is committed to defend the former. How significant is Taiwan to future US-China armed conflict is best demonstrated by its place in military planning scenarios of both countries.

As Jeffrey Lewis, the director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, stressed in China’s Nuclear Modernization: Surprise, Restraint, and Uncertainty: “For both Chinese and US officials, a crisis over the status of Taiwan remains the primary planning scenario for a major engagement involving US and Chinese military forces, including their strategic capabilities.”

The Philippines is a strategic location for the defense of Taiwan. Thus, a necessary step the US must take to defend Taiwan is “to expand cooperation with the Philippines,” as suggested in The United States and Asia: Toward a New US Strategy and Force Posture, a 2001 study by RAND, an influential defense think tank, partly financed by the US government.

The RAND report further emphasized that military arrangements with the Philippines doesn’t need “permanent American presence [but]frequent rotational deployments that would allow for infrastructure improvements and keep facilities ‘warm’ to enable the rapid start of operations in a crisis,” which is precisely EDCA’s purpose.

Certainly, the US has interests in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, but that doesn’t need to entail defending our interests in the Spratlys. The US doesn’t take sides in the sovereignty disputes in the South China Sea. However, it takes a firm position on defending Taiwan from mainland China in case the latter uses force in resolving cross-strait issues. Thus, Taiwan is free-riding, if not benefiting more, from our defense arrangement with the US.

(Published in The Manila Times on 8 March 2018)

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