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Talks next month on US military presence in Phl may be postponed

WASHINGTON - High-level talks here in March on expanding America’s military presence in the Philippines may have to be postponed unless the Aquino administration can come up with specific proposals on where to keep US spy planes and warships on a rotational basis, informed diplomatic sources said.

As part of its “Asia pivot” the US is expanding its military footprint in the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance China’s growing military might and wants facilities in the Philippines for surveillance flights and sea patrols to supplement plans to station troops in Australia and dock littoral combat Navy ships in Singapore.

Both sides are discussing a bigger US military presence and are favorably inclined toward a deal, the Washington Post reported, but at a Phl-US Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in Washington on Jan. 26-27 the Philippine side was unable to come up with details of where, when and how to accommodate the rotating US assets, diplomatic sources said.

Foreign Affairs and Defense officials of the Philippine delegation were not on the same page, the sources said.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta from the US side are scheduled to meet Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin in Washington in March to put their stamp of approval on US military expansion in the Philippines in addition to the current rotating force of about 600 servicemen of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines, under the US Joint Special Operations Command.

Sources said a results-oriented Panetta wanted “substantive deliverables” ironed out before the so-called 2+2 conference and warned he would not be available for the meeting if there were no substantive matters to be discussed.

Scheduling is also an issue because of the difficulty of coordinating the timetables of the principals.

In a recent review of US defense strategy in the light of budget cuts, Panetta said the United States would rebalance its global posture and presence to potential trouble spots in the world such as the Asia-Pacific and the Middle East and place an emphasis on special operations forces and a rotational presence.

“And in all of these cases, obviously we’ll do this in a way that respects the sovereignty of the nations that we will be working with,” he said.

Under Article 18 of the Philippine Constitution “foreign military bases, troops or facilities” are not allowed.

The 600 US troops, designated as “visiting forces,” were deployed in Mindanao on a rotational basis in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist strikes at the Pentagon in Washington and the World Trade Center in New York to help the Armed Forces of the Philippines battle the Abu Sayyaf and other terrorist groups.

Ten years on and they are still ‘visiting’, a touchy issue with Filipino nationalists.

The US wants the same status for warships and planes, leading to speculation it is seeking to re-establish the permanent military presence it had in the Philippines until 1991 when the Senate voted to boot it out.

Military sources said possible sites or coves that the Americans could use to keep their air and ship assets in the Philippines includeSubic Bay, Palawan, Cagayan de Oro, the Visayas area, Poro Point in La Union and Pasuquin in Ilocos Norte.

A successful 2+2 meeting would make President Aquino’s visit to the White House tentatively scheduled in May or June more likely, informed sources said.

With the campaign season in full swing and President Barack Obama facing a difficult election race, time is in short supply for the US leader.

“He will find the time if an important announcement can be made. If it’s only a photo-op then it (the visit) probably won’t happen,” said an ASEAN diplomat who asked not to be identified.

The State Department has intimated to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila that Aquino will have to be ready to travel to Washington at short notice because of the difficulty of anticipating Obama’s campaign schedule, diplomatic sources said.

Defense analysts in Washington said the Philippines and the US are generally on the same page in security matters but differ in emphasis on substance.

The Philippines wants to purchase US ships and aircraft to bolster its maritime defense in the light of Chinese assertiveness over disputed territories in the South China Sea, some of which Manila also claims. Additionally it wants the US Seventh Fleet to be more active in the area.

The US insists first of all that it be given “visitor’s right” to air and sea facilities, pointing out that it would take time to give Filipinos the hardware they want assuming they can afford it, the sources said.

“We want F-16s but we don’t have the facilities for them at the moment. Neither do we have any pilots who can fly them or the technicians to maintain them. It takes time and lots of money,“ a military source said.

He said the F-16s came into the equation only because President Aquino, while on a visit to Indonesia, saw the planes and voiced his opinion that the Philippines should have them too.

“We need a firm decision from the political leadership on our military needs rather than wants,“ the source added.
By Jose Katigbak , 
STAR Washington Bureau
The Philippine Star
February 04, 2012 12:00 AM


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