Philippines arms itself with new pacts

Posted on August 3, 2012


Since 1995, for example, with little reaction from the Clinton Administration, China has built and expanded structures on Mischief Reef in the Spratly Island chain, about 150 miles from Philippine territory but over 800 miles away from the Chinese mainland.

With the United States playing coy about its commitment to military defense ties, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) sharply divided on how to respond to China’s increasing assertiveness to territorial claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines has in recent weeks forged new pacts with non-regional allies Australia and Japan to hedge its bets.

On July 24, the Philippine Senate ratified the Status of Visiting Forces (SOFA) agreement with Australia, which had been pending in the legislative body since it was signed five years ago. In announcing the pact, Senator Edgardo Angara said the Philippines needs “a protective defensive treaty with our friends and allies”.

He suggested the treaty will help to provide a defense shield for the Philippines that along with other agreements will run from north to south, from Japan and South Korea to Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and Australia.

Another senator, Loren Legarda, more explicitly linked the pact to conflicts in the South China Sea. “We are faced by grave dangers and threats not present 15 years ago and the Philippines is at the strategic center of all these realities. A strategic center that has no fulcrum will not be able to realistically wage a sustainable, winning crusade against these regional and global threats.”

Signed in 2007 and later ratified by the Australian parliament, the agreement had been on the backburner due to nationalistic opposition in the Philippine senate. The SOFA does not obligate either party to come to the aid of the other in case of a third-party attack, but rather covers issues of jurisdiction over Australian troops sent to train in the Philippines and vice versa as the two countries conduct and potentially enhance joint military training.

The two countries already had an active defense cooperation, mainly joint maritime exercises and counter-terrorism training, based on a memorandum of understanding signed in 1995. The Philippines has also received Australian military aid, including advanced training for senior officers in Australian military schools along with the transfer to the Philippines of 28 flat-bottomed airboats that can be used for both military and disaster-relief purposes.

“Australia has been assisting the Philippines in strengthening its maritime security capability with initiatives such as the Coast Watch South project and the joint Maritime Training Activity LUMBAS. These initiatives are expected to be further expanded and strengthened under the SOFA,” a statement issued by the president’s palace said.

“Once in force, the agreement will provide a more comprehensive legal framework for the presence of one country’s forces in the other. It is reciprocal in nature, with the same obligations being assumed by both parties,” the Australian Embassy said.

Earlier in the month, Manila concluded a defense agreement with Japan. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin met his Japanese counterpart Satoshi Morimoto in Tokyo on July 2 to sign a Statement of Intent of the Greater Defense Cooperation Agreement.

The five-year pact provides for high-level, working level and unit-to-unit military exchanges between the two countries, policy talks on security and defense concerns, education exchanges, and sharing of regional and maritime information. The bilateral defense agreement also covers cooperation in international peacekeeping operations and includes provisions for capacity building.

During a visit to Japan last September, Philippine President Benigno Aquino discussed with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda the need to strengthen ties between their respective coast guards and navies.

“We share with the Philippines the basic sense of values as well as strategic interest,” Noda said in a news conference. “We’ve agreed on frequent dialogue between top leaders and ministers, launch of vice-ministerial strategic talks, and strengthening of cooperation between maritime safety authorities and defense authorities.”

Included in the military pact is Tokyo’s approval for Manila to acquire 12 patrol boats for use by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). According to reports, 10 new 40-meter long vessels packed with modern electronics gear will be turned over under terms of Japan’s Official Development Aid while two additional bigger vessels are being eyed for transfer to the Philippine government under a grant.

These new vessels will not ostensibly fall under Manila’s stated plans to build a “minimum credible defense” because they will be transferred to the PCG. However, the move signals a potential bigger role for the PCG in deterring Chinese fishing boats from poaching in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Militarized maritime
Aquino earlier emphasized a “white to white, grey to grey” policy when it came to securing its maritime borders, meaning coastguard ships should be the ones to deal with civilian Chinese vessels and fishing boats rather than naval vessels.

Japanese newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun was quoted as saying that “the move to supply the Philippines with patrol vessels [is meant] … to raise the Philippines’ maritime safety capabilities in the South China Sea, where it is clashing with China over sovereignty rights”.

The new pacts may have already emboldened Philippine policymakers. This week, Manila’s Department of Energy announced it will auction three contested areas in the South China Sea for oil and gas exploration to multinational energy companies. The blocks, which Manila claims are within its EEZ, are off the Philippine province of Palawan.

“The Philippines exercises exclusive sovereign rights and authority to explore and exploit resources within these areas to the exclusion of other countries. There is no doubt and dispute about such rights,” said Philippine Undersecretary of Energy Jose Layug.

Nonetheless, the new defense pacts were hotly debated by Philippine lawmakers. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the ratification of the pact with Australia and with its passage raised questions about what she described as “vague” provisions of the treaty and how these “will spawn myriad irritants in [Philippine]-Australia relations”.

Harry Roque, director of the Institute of International Legal Studies of the University of the Philippines’ Law Center, has low expectations for the deterrent impact of the new military agreement with Australia. “Like the rest of ASEAN and even the US, I think Australia has too much at stake with China. They, too, cannot be involved in a dispute that does not involve them and might antagonize their biggest trading partner.”

Though he opposes the presence of foreign troops in the Philippines, Roque conceded that the SOFA’s provisions are more agreeable than the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) the Philippines has in place with the US. The new treaty, he said, “leaves soldiers accused of non-service related offenses to Philippine authorities” unlike the US agreement.

Despite these misgivings, the treaty sailed through the senate on a 17-1 vote. The easy passage was a reflection of the rising pressure on the government to better address its festering maritime disputes with China. A series of incidents in the past months, including the two-month stand-off at Scarborough Shoal have intensified diplomatic and military frictions between the two countries.

Tensions threatened to spike two weeks ago when a Chinese warship ran aground on Half Moon Shoal in the disputed Spratly Islands. The missile frigate was stranded just 60 nautical miles from the nearest Philippine island, Palawan, and was within the Philippines’ EEZ where foreign naval ships are not supposed to conduct patrols.

Last week, Philippine officials based in Pag-asa island, one of the largest in the Spratlys occupied by the Philippines, reported that a flotilla of more than 20 Chinese fishing boats escorted by a couple of Chinese missile frigates were seen poaching for reefs and other marine products some five nautical miles off the island. It was said that the Chinese vessels were operating in the vicinity of Subi and Mischief reefs, the latter of which hosts a Chinese naval outpost.

Mischief Reef was part of the territories claimed by the Philippines until Chinese warships seized it in 1994. Recent reports said that the waters surrounding the reef are now undergoing dredging to accommodate larger ships so that the reef may be used as a staging ground for more Chinese fishing flotillas.

In both instances, the Philippine government had stood by helplessly as it lacks sufficient military power to challenge such Chinese provocations. At the same time, its traditional allies in the US and ASEAN have failed to come sufficiently to Manila’s defense against China. That served as motivation for the new and enhanced pacts with Australia and Japan. Aquino’s government is also considering similar new defense agreements with Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Though these pacts do not necessarily mean these countries will aid the Philippines should a shooting war break out with China, they will help build up military capabilities through joint exercises, training, education, and arms deals. While China has apparently seized on the Philippines’ naval weaknesses, the situation is evolving as more regional players enter the fray.

George Amurao

Posted in: Politics