Manila warms to China, cools on US
By Al Labita
Southeast Asia Nov 17, 2010
MANILA - While former United States president Bill Clinton urged the Philippines to maintain strong bilateral military ties with Washington, China was simultaneously forwarding its own brand of military diplomacy. A day after Clinton's whirlwind speaking tour in Manila on November 10, China's ambassador Liu Jianchao and senior Philippine defense officials toasted a "new era" for the military relationship.
The occasion: the handing over of big-ticket heavy construction equipment from China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). The donation, meant to boost the building of farm-to-market roads, bridges and public schools, was viewed by officials as a sign of China's goodwill and understanding towards Philippine forces.
Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin thanked the Chinese government "for the generous assistance that we shall treasure as a token of enduring friendship and cooperation between our two nations and peoples".
From tokens come military hardware. Beijing has a standing offer to sell at a discount 10 Harbin Z-9 combat helicopters and other modern armaments to beef up Manila's fight against Muslim insurgents in Mindanao. The equipment donated this week consisted of eight graders, two loaders, three road rollers, four backhoe loaders, three dump trucks, two road wreckers, an aerial vehicle and 10 bulldozers.
In diplomatic contrast, Clinton's visit was marred by street protests by students, denouncing him and the US for the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) sealed in 1999 between Manila and Washington. The VFA, which allows US soldiers to conduct the annual "war games" with their Philippine counterparts and maintain a consistent level of troops in the country, was sealed during Clinton's presidency.
His visit last week was also touched by a diplomatic ruckus over how Clinton's senior aide shooed away and shouted at the Philippines' second-highest government official, who waited for the former US president's arrival at the luxury Manila Hotel. Irked by the spat, Vice President Jejomar Binay told reporters he would lodge a formal complaint saying that the Clinton aide's unruly behavior smacked of disrespect and arrogance towards local hospitality.
Binay's rage over the incident aptly illustrated Manila's current resentment towards the US, particularly after it issued a travel advisory warning American nationals of possible terrorist attacks in the Philippines ahead of Clinton's visit. Taking the US's cue, other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, followed suit with their own terrorism-related travel advisories for the Philippines.
Peeved by the travel advisory, which he referred to "arbitrary, unfounded and baseless," President Benigno Aquino asked the US and other countries to lift the warnings, saying they curbed unnecessarily the flow of foreign tourists and investment to the Philippines. Citing reports from the military and police, Aquino argued there was no evidence of any "clear and present" danger posed by terrorists, whether Islamic or communist, to foreign visitors.
The Abu Sayyaf, a motley band of mostly Muslim bandits, and the communist-led New People's Army have been on the run in recent years as US security forces in Mindanao back the AFP's counter-insurgency campaigns. Some 3,000 US marines have just completed their annual joint military training exercises with their AFP counterparts.
Other senior officials, however, believed that the adverse travel advisory was deliberate Washington pressure on Manila as it begins to review the VFA amid a strong clamor by the opposition for its abrogation. In his 35-minute speech during a public forum in Manila, Clinton justified the VFA, stressing that it was of mutual benefit between the two long-time strategic allies.
"We formulated the VFA which permitted joint operations between our military and which called for greater military assistance from the United States," Clinton said. "The world is too unstable," he added, referring to both terrorist threats and rising international tensions over the disputed Spratlys islands in the South China Sea, where the Philippines has competing claims with China.
Other than exclusive jurisdiction over US troops charged with committing local crimes, Manila wants Washington to pay for the use of facilities by its military forces while in the Philippines. At Subic bay, a former US naval base situated east of Manila, officials had complained that the US has refused to pay the state-run economic zone for the use of its port and airport.
They singled out the USS Essex, an aircraft carrier which recently took part in the annual joint exercises, and other US military vessels which reportedly refused to pay berthing and harbor fees. Similarly, US aircraft had been charged landing, parking, overflight and other fees, but bucked making any payments to the state-run Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, officials said.
Subic was where a group of US Marines on rest and recreation sexually abused a Filipina and later dumped her at the sidewalk on November 1, 2005. Of those tried for rape, Lance Corporal Daniel Smith was found guilty by a lower court and was sentenced to 40 years in jail. He was eventually freed after the US invoked the VFA, which exempts US military personnel from Philippine law.
The incident kicked up a firestorm of protests in Manila at the time and continues to color the debate now raging over the VFA. Political science professor Roland Simbulan of the state-run University of the Philippines said that the VFA highly favored the US at Manila's expense. Even Manila's foreign and justice officials already prejudged the rape case by absolving the US marine before his trial began, he noted.
"The full weight and resources of the US government were mobilized in defense of the respondent," Simbulan said.
Some lawmakers, however, have cautioned the government against a knee-jerk reassessment of the VFA. The deal has allowed the Philippines to enjoy the US's regional security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region a key deterrent against China bullying other Spratlys claimant countries.
Other than its security dimensions, the VFA has also facilitated economic aid, including the US$434 million "Millennium Challenge" signed during Aquino's recent visit to the US. It aid package aims to address poverty, strengthen government institutions in fighting graft and corruption and build infrastructure projects in insurgency-hit areas.
In addition, the US has an ongoing $250 million assistance program to enable Manila to curb international human trafficking. Nearly eight million Filipinos work abroad, the bulk of them in the Middle East. US ambassador Harry Thomas told a forum of foreign journalists last month that some 40,000 to 50,000 Filipino workers may be needed to construct the US military base in Guam.
While Washington has no problem with Manila's ongoing review of the VFA, Thomas said it should be done in a "transparent manner", a reference to the Aquino government's lack of consultations with the American side. "We are temporary guests of the Philippine government. We don't have bases here. We have no construction here. We have no plans. We don't need bases here," he said.
Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist.
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