A front-line state against China

October 3, 2013

Alessandro Tinonga explains what's at stake in a new alignment in the Pacific.

THE PHILIPPINES government has agreed to allow a greater presence of U.S. military forces on its soil as tensions with the growing regional power of China continue to rise.

"The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines--that would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality," claimed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel during a visit to the Philippines in August. "Instead, we are using a new model of military-to military cooperation benefiting two great allies and partners."

But that obscures the heightened rotations of U.S. troops and military hardware to military facilities on Philippines, which is what the administration of President Benigno Aquino III has proposed. A final plan may be completed within the next month. The temporary deployments and leased facilities are different in name only to a permanent presence.

The move by the U.S. is clearly aimed at deterring any attempts by the Chinese military to bolster its presence in the region. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. has sharpened its focus on protecting its economic and political interests in the Pacific. In what is described as a "pivot to Asia," the U.S. is looking for ways to contain China's political assertiveness--and the Philippines is seen as a key piece of the power puzzle.

U.S. Navy personnel conduct training exercises in the Philippines
U.S. Navy personnel conduct training exercises in the Philippines (Edward G. Martens)

According to journalist Richard Javad Heydarian writing in the Asia Times:

As a direct party to the South China Sea disputes and standing among a select number of US treaty allies in Asia, the Philippines, a former US colony, is from Washington's perspective an ideal candidate for hosting U.S. military assets in the region as part of its "pivot" policy.

The Philippines ruling class has been an enthusiastic supporter of this policy--more so by early 2012, as tensions escalated between China and the Philippines, when the two countries engaged in a maritime standoff, accusing each other of intrusions in the Scarborough Shoal. Disputes have also risen on claims to the Spratly Islands.

Since then, the Aquino government has pursued stronger cooperation with the U.S., and has sought to increase its own forces, with plans to spend $1.7 billion to buy ships, helicopters and weapons.

Recently, the U.S. tone became more aggressive when it publicly accused China of territorial expansionism. China has heated up its rhetoric by broadening its claim over the territory in the South China Sea, including Taiwan. This is likely why the U.S. has aimed to speed up its commitment to assist the Philippine military.

THE NEW agreement marks a new phase in Philippines-U.S. relations. As a former colony and a post-Second World War ally of the U.S., the Philippines have looked to American support to bolster many of its military operations.

In 1951, the two countries signed the Mutual Defense Treaty, which stated that "an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties, or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean, its armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific."

This principle has been reaffirmed many times. The U.S. has provided technical support, intelligence and weapons to the Philippines military throughout the worst abuses of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the country from 1965 until he was driven out of office and into exile by mass protests in 1986.

Even after the U.S. left its bases--the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base--in 1992 after the end of the Cold War with the former USSR, the two countries have been bound by the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which allows for the stationing of a limited number of U.S. troops on Philippine soil, on a rotating basis.

This "limited number of troops" assisted the Philippine government in counter-insurgency operations, especially on the island of Mindanao, where there is a separatist movement challenging the government. After the September 11 attacks in the U.S., members of U.S. Special Operations Command Pacific were deployed to the Philippines to hunt down insurgents, especially members of the Islamist group Abu Sayyaf.

During major offensives in Mindanao, U.S. soldiers were repeatedly seen with Filipino troops, participating directly in operations under the guise of providng "technical assistance"--with clear echoes of the U.S. presence in Vietnam half a century before. In 2008, a Filipino general confirmed that the crew of a U.S. spy plane provided the intelligence that resulted in an operation in which eight civilians, including a pregnant woman and two children, were killed in Maimbung in Sulu province.

With the new agreement being negotiated between Manila and Washington, the Philippines ruling class is aligning itself more directly than ever with U.S. imperial interests. This helps ensure its long-term interests. In the last few years, Philippine business has successfully instituted a massive neoliberal restructuring that has lead to annual economic growth of more than 7 percent, an improved international credit rating, and new interest in international investment.

The growing territorial disputes with China and the ongoing insurgency in Mindanao have motivated Philippines rulers to take extensive measures protect its economic and political interests.

Despite the Philippines government's extensive record of human rights abuses and political corruption, the U.S. is more than willing to further supply it with guns, equipment and training. While there may not be a direct military engagement with Chinese forces, despite the rising tensions, it is certain that the new agreement will give the Aquino administration more forces to fight the insurgency.

After a recent rebel attack by Moro fighters near Zamboanga in Mindanao, the government is under further pressure to clamp down on the insurgency. Thus, the new agreement with the U.S. would not only American imperial interests, but give the government a chance to tighten its grip on the Filipino masses.

Despite the growth of the Philippines economy, over one-quarter of the population lives under the official poverty line. Political and class struggles are continuing, but it is still very dangerous to organize, since extra-judicial murder of activists happens all too often. Under this Aquino government alone, 140 political activists have been assassinated, according to reports--and in many cases, government participation, or at least a willing negligence in pursuing the assailants, is suspected.

A stronger neoliberal state in the Philippines won't provide protection from violence and corruption--quite the opposite. But it is designed to guarantee stability to foreign investors and local bosses. We should oppose this new agreement, not only to oppose the greater reach of U.S. imperialism, but to support the struggles of the Filipino masses.

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