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The Philippines, United States move forward with Balikatan training

By Rene P. Acosta
Members of the Philippine Navy Special Operations Group prepare to board a suspicious vessel suspected of trafficking drugs or harboring militants during a training exercise off the waters of San Nicolas shoal in Manila Bay during Balikatan 2010. [Reuters]

Members of the Philippine Navy Special Operations Group prepare to board a suspicious vessel suspected of trafficking drugs or harboring militants during a training exercise off the waters of San Nicolas shoal in Manila Bay during Balikatan 2010. [Reuters]

MANILA – Balikatan 2012, an annual major training program involving several nations, most notably the United States and the Republic of the Philippines, continues to move forward.

At least six minor and major trainings exercises, including the “Balikatan” [Shoulder-to-shoulder] military exercises have been held yearly with the U.S. under the auspices of the Mutual Defense Treaty and the 14-year-old Visiting Forces Agreement [VFA], which is governed by the RP-US Mutual Defense Board/ Security Engagement Board.

This year’s Balikatan, which as in the past includes three phases, civil-military operations or engineering, construction and medical and dental projects; field training exercises [FTX] and Command Post Exercises [CPX] or table top exercises [TTX] is set for April 16-27 in the main island of Luzon and in Palawan, near the South China Sea.

For the first time, ASEAN members and other foreign observers will join the table top exercises, the 28th involving United States and Filipino soldiers.

Aside from the war games, at least 500 U.S. soldiers are temporarily stationed in Southern Philippines under the Joint Special Operations Task Force – Philippines and are assisting the military in its counter-terrorism efforts through information and technical supports.

A Philippines sailor climbs aboard a suspicious vessel during the Balikatan 2010 training exercise. [Reuters]

A Philippines sailor climbs aboard a suspicious vessel during the Balikatan 2010 training exercise. [Reuters]

For this year’s civil-military operations during the exercises, U.S. troops will construct classrooms, school buildings, vocational training centers, multipurpose rooms, a septic tank, a water well, five kilometers of roads, water catchment facilities and undertake a flood mitigation project in at least 28 areas or barangays in the provinces of Lanao del Sur, Sulu, Basilan, Tawi-tawi, Palawan, Sorsogon, Masbate, Ilocos Sur, Tarlac and Zambales.

Many impoverished families in other outlying barangays are also slated to benefit from the medical and dental projects accompanying the exercises.

Data provided by the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Programs showed the U.S. forces already have undertaken engineering, road and construction projects, both for civilians and the military since the start of the Balikatan series of exercises. This is in addition to the smaller construction projects that include schools, barangay halls, day care centers and civic centers.

For the military alone, at least 25 major construction projects in its different camps across the country have been undertaken or awarded to civilian contractors.

In conjunction with Exercise Balikatan, the U.S. Pacific Command also conducted a Pacific Angel humanitarian event treating more than 14,000 patients in Albay province.

Gazmin said that aside from the civil-military activities, equipment use and training, the VFA allows Filipino soldiers to hone their skills in military doctrine and war fighting, and the Armed Forces receives U.S. military equipment.

He said the agreement allows the military to educate its troops and secure loans for assets and equipment.

Lawmakers debate calls to drop VFA

Even as the training program moves forward, Filipino lawmakers are engaging in debate over whether the VFA agreement with the U.S. should be scrapped. The pact has allowed Filipino soldiers to continuously train with their American counterparts, equipped the military and benefited marginalized barangays through civil-military operations.

Lawmakers allied with the Left and originated in the House of Representatives are calling to end the agreement. They zeroed in on the supposed disadvantages of the agreement, principally because of the alleged absence of benefits on the part of the Philippines as the host country.

Still, key diplomats and top defense and military officials justified its existence.

The initial salvo for rescinding the agreement, which is undergoing review by the Aquino administration, was leveled by Party-List Rep. Teddy Casiño of Bayan Muna, who filed House Resolution No. 409 that called on President Benigno Aquino III to “initiate the abrogation of the RP-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement and demand the immediate withdrawal of US troops” in the country.

The resolution along with similar moves including privilege speeches, were quickly referred by the House of Representatives to its Committee on Foreign Affairs chaired by Rep. Al Francis Bichara of Albay. Bichara agreed to hear it along with the Committee on National Defense and Security chaired by Rep. Rodolfo Biazon of Muntinlupa, a former Marine and retired Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Casiño said the agreement has allowed the permanent presence of U.S. forces into the country, adding that U.S. soldiers are not only in the country for military exercises but are also directly involved in combat and counter-insurgency operations in violation of the provisions of the agreement.

During a joint hearing with the Foreign Affairs Committee, Biazon initially explained that there are no grounds for terminating international treaties including the VFA.

He said that should it be pursued, the normal procedures would be the Department of National Defense would recommend the termination of the VFA to Aquino through the Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA].

But before it reaches the president, the issue or the recommendation should be studied by the DFA which shall submit its own position to the president.

“The president approves or disapproves the recommendation and directs the DFA to prepare the appropriate documents,” Biazon said.

VFA benefits

DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and other government officials, including VFA Executive Director Lt. Gen. Edilberto Adan defended the existence of the agreement along with the planned increased visits or even presence of U.S. forces in the country.

Del Rosario said the agreement is beneficial not only to the military, but to the country as a whole, because of the assistance pouring into the areas of defense, military and socio-economic.

He said the VFA has allowed the U.S. and the Philippines to forge cooperation not only in the area of defense and security, but even on disaster response.

On the other hand, Gazmin said the agreement and the planned rotational visits of American troops into the country will “temper the behavior of non-state or state actors that would undermine our sovereignty.”

Philippine-U.S. military alliance

The resolutions and privilege speeches calling for the termination of the VFA has opened up another front, with other lawmakers calling for Congress to look into the military and defense relationships between the U.S. and the Philippines and on their arrangement involving security issues in the South China Sea.

Though a resolution, Rep. Winston Castelo asked the House to look into the last six years of U.S. military aid to the country and its impact on the modernization of the military and America’s “role in regional security.”

Another progressive lawmaker, Rep. Walden Bello of Akbayan, also petitioned the House to look into the recent developments involving relations between the two countries.

Bello raised concerns that Congress is neither consulted nor informed of the ongoing discussions between the two countries in relation to their alliance, particularly when it comes to the South China Sea issue.

However, both Gazmin and del Rosario said the government was transparent when it comes to its defense relations with the U.S. and even with the developments in the South China Sea.

Biazon said while his committee along with that of the Committee on Foreign Affairs are hearing the VFA and other related defense and security issues, they, and even Congress as a whole, could not scrap the agreement. Instead, congressional lawmakers can express their sentiments to Aquino.

Just as del Rosario and Gazmin were talking before Congress, the DFA announced that the U.S. has allotted security assistance aid valued at $144.66 million to the country.

The amount is an increase of $21.38 million over the aid provided to the Philippines last year and was given under the U.S. comprehensive foreign policy on the South China Sea.


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