The Tide Shifts in the Pacific

Philippines: "Quick Fix from America"

U.S. Marine and Python
April 25, 2002, Ternate Military Base, the Philippines: U.S. Marine Miles Lewis with the head of a Python (Photo: AFP).  

Terror has a way of reuniting even estranged partners. The Philippines and the United States are no exception.

More than 10 years after the Philippine Senate voted to terminate the Military Bases Agreement—for long the defining point of relations between them—the Philippines is back on the map of American security experts. The parting was harsh, even traumatic, in 1992, but the larger threat posed by a common enemy was compelling enough reason to revitalize relations anew.

The Balikatan ["shoulder-to-shoulder"] 02-1 exercises—controversial because of constitutional and legal questions raised by critics—officially ended on July 31, with the rescue of hostages from the Abu Sayyaf and the supposed killing of [Abu Sayyaf leader Aldam Tilao, alias] Abu Sabaya as feathers in the cap of Filipino and American soldiers who took part in the joint operations.

Months before the rescue, public opinion was in favor of the exercises, with 66 percent of respondents of a PulseAsia survey giving their nod of approval. Of those in favor, 69 percent said they believed Filipino soldiers would learn much about modern arms and techniques of fighting terrorists.

Changing Security Climate

To Filipino and American military officials, however, the completion of the exercises is proof of the strength and warmth of a security alliance that had turned lukewarm after 1991. Officials say that the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) that has bound the two countries together for the last 51 years has quickly adapted to a "changing security environment characterized by transnational threats such as terrorism"—a testimony to its strength.

But perceived national interests ultimately dictate the decisions made by a nation’s leadership. And so former Foreign Affairs Secretary Teofisto Guingona, who kept on questioning the joint military exercises, became a casualty in the president’s political power play.

In the United States, there were reports of more than 60 Filipinos [who had overstayed their visas] being deported and handcuffed on the way home, of Filipino employees at West Coast airports being laid off, and of trade preferences being extended to Andean tuna exporters—putting Philippine tuna exports to the United States at risk. The reports raised hackles in the Philippines put the already-tenuous plan in jeopardy.

Political scientist Felipe Miranda believes the United States has acted predictably in protecting its own interests. Unfortunately for the Philippines, he says, the political leadership has gotten so used to "quick-fix politics" that the Balikatan exercises, now tailored to fight terrorism in the region, are being regarded as a quick solution to the military’s woes.

Foreign Policy

When [President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo] decided to place foreign policy at the service of the fight against homegrown terrorism, criminality, and lawlessness, and to put her administration solidly behind U.S. President [George] Bush’s war on international terrorism, she was taking steps toward closer Philippine-U.S. bilateral security relations.

"The intention was not to revive the special relations we had with the Americans when the U.S. bases were still here," explains a military officer assigned to one of the policy offices under the Office of the Secretary of National Defense (OSND). "We only wanted to take advantage of the renewed interest shown by the Americans in our country after the Sept. 11 attacks. We believe that we could reap so much benefit from the military standpoint because of President Arroyo’s unconditional support to the war against Al-Qaeda and international terrorism."

Terrorist attacks are not exactly the best way of getting into anybody’s radar screen, says ASEAN Secretary General and former Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino Jr., but since this is what has happened, "the Philippines should take advantage of it and move to have a good image of itself projected in the United States… [which] is what the Philippines has been trying to do."

Aid Patterns

Since May 1999, when the Philippine Senate ratified the Philippine-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that would allow limited U.S. military presence in the country, the level of both security and economic assistance to the Philippines has been rapidly growing.

Since 1992, when the United States abandoned its bases in Clark and Subic, the level of U.S. development assistance to the Philippines had been in a steady decline. Development assistance administered under the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) dropped to its lowest levels in 1997 and 1998—US$57 million dollars a year—before beginning to rise again in 1999.

Military aid had dwindled to less than US$1 million dollars in residual assistance before the VFA was signed and ratified by the Senate. After the events of Sept. 11, the level of U.S. military assistance grew rapidly—the US$1 million grant to the Foreign Military Fund (FMF) allocated by Congress for fiscal year 1999 was raised to US$19 million for fiscal year 2002, making it the fourth largest such program in the world.

An estimated US$68 million for the FMF program alone will be made available to the Philippines over the next five years. Other programs are being made available to the Philippine military to help upgrade its defense capabilities. All these are a breakthrough for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which some have described as among the most ill-equipped and weakest military organizations in this part of the world.


This is dangerous for a defense force that has shown a tendency to be dependent on the United States in the past.

Segundo Romero, political science professor at the University of the Philippines, says it is unfortunate that after 1991, the political leadership showed little resolve in modernizing the Armed Forces. In November 2001 report, he found that of the 331.6 billion pesos earmarked to modernize the Armed Forces in 1995, only 11 percent was released by 2000.

At 2 percent of the Philippines' Gross Domestic Product, the Armed Forces’ budget is still "comparable to its neighbors" in the Asia-Pacific region, says Romero, but it still ranks the Philippines 14th on a list of 20 countries that has North Korea, Brunei, and China as the top-three military spenders.

It comes as no surprise that with little to show in terms of defense capability, the Philippine military would embrace its American counterparts after the political leadership kicked them out in 1991.

The country’s vulnerability to external threats, like China, and now terrorists in the region, has heightened the need for a strong defense ally that could deter aggression. That ally, to some people, could be none other but the United States.

The recent reinvigoration of relations that resulted in the redefined Balikatan exercises faces another hurdle: the Mutual Logistics Support Arrangement (MLSA), which, according to U.S. Ambassador Frank Ricciardone Jr., is "not a law, not a treaty… but a low-level executive agreement." As such, military officials believe it does not require the Senate’s nod. It will have as contracting parties the defense secretaries of the Philippines and the United States, and as signatories the Armed Forces chief of staff and the U.S. commander in chief of the Pacific command.


Philippines see American soldiers off
Residents of Zamboanga, in the southern Philippines, cheer U.S. troops stationed in the region, July 30, 2002. The U.S. troops left July 31, after a six-month joint operation with Philippine forces (Photo: AFP).

Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes says [the agreement] will facilitate logistics support for accounting and auditing purposes. Logistics refers to supplies like food, clothing, fuel, and spare parts, while support services include transportation, communications, messing, and billeting.

The MLSA will allow the United States to leave equipment here and allow for greater "interoperability, readiness, and effectiveness" between the militaries of the two countries. Legal and constitutional concerns have caused talks that began in October 2001 to drag, but Reyes wants the agreement signed soon. "The sooner the better. What we don’t want to happen is for the logistics not to be left behind" after the Balikatan exercises.

Guingona had been questioning the constitutionality of the agreement, another reason why the President let him go. The U.N. Security Council Resolution [in support of the United States after Sept. 11] and the MDT are being cited as legal bases for the MLSA, but former DFA Undersecretary Merlin Magallona points out that these speak of external threats and self-defense.

Yet U.S. assistance is being channeled not to military operations but to exercises meant to build up the Armed Forces. Magallona says this means undertaking "internal security measures" against terrorism, which should be a domestic concern. The Balikatan exercises are marking the beginning of the "changing content and intent of the MDT," he warns—without Senate approval as required by the Constitution.

Despite the strong focus on the military and security aspect of relations, the United States’ underlying interest in the region will remain economic.

After all, over the years, relations between the Philippines and the United States have gone beyond security concerns. Trade, for example, is significant. As of the first quarter of this year, the U.S. trade deficit with the Philippines stood at US$805.5 million, the balance in favor of the Philippines. Last year, the balance stood at US$3.67 billion, again in favor of the Philippines.

In 2000, about a third of local exports were bound for America. The United States was also the country’s largest foreign investor that year, accounting for close to a fourth of the foreign direct investment in the Philippines.

At least 2 million Americans of Filipino ancestry live in the United States and more than 120,000 American citizens live here.

But undeniably, the anti-terror drive has taken the front seat in the last few months. It has been an "organizing and focusing event" for the United States, says Ricciardone.

Looking down the road, he says China will remain "the story of our generation [and] of our lifetime." With a market of more than a billion people, it has the potential to undermine economies and, in turn, to be affected internally by the world economy.

Former Ambassador to Washington Raul Rabe says "weaving a security net" around China is still part of the U.S. strategy, along with engagement. The Philippines enter the picture because it they are the "weakest link" in the U.S. regional security network. Tapping into that network and making the most out of it will be to the [Philippines’] national interest, Rabe says.

The Issue of Sovereignty

Accepting the American presence here through the Balikatan exercises, according to constitutionalist Joaquin Bernas SJ, is in itself an act of sovereignty.

Whether or not the choice is freely made is another issue. In any alliance the terms are loaded against the weaker party—in this case, the Philippines. In such a relationship, political scientist Jose Magadia SJ says, "there is very little space in which to move."

The Americans have repeatedly declared that they are no longer interested in setting up bases here. "We’re not going to have a huge or permanent U.S. military presence anymore. You don’t want it, your Constitution prohibits it, we don’t want it, and we don’t need it. It’s just not going to happen…. It’s the wrong issue," Ricciardone says.

To Magadia, the United States is unlikely to escalate its military presence in the region if Americans feel they have contained the Islamic terrorist threat, or if it becomes politically costly for the Bush administration.

Though trapped by the real threats posed by terrorism and pressing economic needs—problems that make free choices difficult for the country—it is the responsibility of the political leadership to make sure the Philippines’ dependency on the United States is lessened over time because, as Miranda points out, "altruism is not part of a foreign power’s foreign policy."

While it is true that the pragmatism of the moment can be used to buy time for the more long-term, fundamental goals, Miranda reminds the political leadership that in international politics "each one takes care of his own interest."