Category Archives: US Pivot

Reading between the lines of Duterte’s VFA half a turnaround

By Romel Regalado Bagares

Was all of President Duterte’s  kicking and cursing about the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in February – to borrow from the Bard –really just all bluster, “told by an idiot/ full of sound and fury,/Signifying nothing”?

The question arose after President Duterte suspended for the time being an earlier notice he had sent to the Trump administration that  the Philippines was terminating the country’s VFA with the United States.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced late Tuesday night the stay on the abrogation of the treaty via a tweet – well, at least, for the next six months.

But the clue lies in the conditional nature of the not-quite complete reversal of policy: per Locsin, the suspension of the process of abrogation took effect on June 1, and  “shall continue for 6 months” and may even be extended for an equivalent period.

Under article 9 of the VFA, the notice of termination was to become effective “180 days from the date on which either party gives the other party notice in writing that it desires to terminate the agreement.”

But the big conditional points to a pending purchase by the Philippines of  six advanced combat helicopters, which had already been cleared by the US State Department but is being opposed by Philippine and American human rights groups.

The purchase, with a price tag ranging from US $450 million to US $1.5 billion, depending on the helicopter make and model  that will eventually be sold, still needs US congressional approval.

And that’s the reason why Mr. Duterte is being segurista. He doesn’t want to fully commit yet to the restoration of the VFA, because he’s leery of what the US Congress will do when the proposed sale is formally presented to it for approval. 

 “The Philippines is considering either the AH-1Z or the AH-64E to modernize its attack helicopter capabilities,” a note on the website of the US Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) states, as quoted by Defense News. “The proposed sale will assist the Philippines in developing and maintaining strong self-defense, counterterrorism, and critical infrastructure protection capabilities.”

The DSCA is a US Department of National Defense unit dealing with security cooperation with American allies. 

To begin with, the approval by the US State Department should not have happened, given the very reason  for Mr.  Duterte’s decision to end the VFA – yet another cautionary example of American regional realpolitik.  They like to wear the human rights hat when it suits them, but they could just as quickly ditch it in the name of US national interest.

In late January this year,  Mr.  Duterte explored in anger over the reported cancellation by the US of the American visa issued to a key ally in his deadly drug war, Senator  Rogelio “Bato” Dela Rosa, because of the role he played as chief implementor of Oplan Tokhang when the latter was chief of the Philippine National Police (PNP).

What really angered  Mr. Duterte was that the visa cancellation was apparently the consequence of the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act (ARIA), signed by US President Donald Trump in December 2018.

ARIA advances a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” policy based on national security interest of the United States to promote “human rights and respect for democratic values in the Indo-Pacific region.” The law specifically references the Philippines over “disturbing reports of extrajudicial killings.”

It complements the older Magnitsky Act, a law authorizing the US government to sanction those who it sees as human rights offenders by freezing their assets, and banning them from entering the U.S. 

ARIA authorizes the American president to impose “targeted financial penalties and visa ban sanctions, in accordance with applicable law and other relevant authorities, on any individual or entity that–(1) violates human rights or religious freedoms; or (2) engages in censorship activities.”

It specifically provides that the US government may not provide counter-narcotics assistance to the PNP unless the Philippines adopts a strategy “consistent with international human rights standards, including investigating and prosecuting individuals who are credibly alleged to have ordered, committed, or covered up extrajudicial killings and other gross violations of human rights in the conduct of counternarcotics operations.”

ARIA is also tied to the US Asia pivot to contain China’s growing influence in the Asian region, as it authorizes US forces to “conduct, as part of its global Freedom of Navigation Program, regular freedom of navigation, and overflight operations in the Indo-Pacific region, in accordance with applicable international law; and (2) to promote genuine multilateral negotiations to peacefully resolve maritime disputes in the South China Sea, in accordance with applicable international law.”

This makes Mr. Duterte, who has brought the Philippines closer to China more than any other Filipino leader, a prime target of US sanctions under ARIA.

This also explains Mr. Duterte’s decision to go after the VFA, despite protestations from the Philippine defense establishment. 

As they say, there’s an opportunity in every crisis.

For the Americans, the hefty price tag  that the pending sale of defense articles comes with is only icing on the cake, if it pushes through. After all, it will be the single biggest sale of brand new US defense materiel to the Philippines in recent memory.  More than that, it is a chance to re-establish ties with the Philippine military establishment, and even to re-commit the latter into the US regional agenda.

For Mr. Duterte, it’s an opportunity to placate a restive military unhappy with his pro-China policy direction on the South China Sea. It’s also face-saving for him (look, Trump blinked!), even if in reality, he actually fell for the trap laid down by the Americans for Mr. Duterte when they pushed the ARIA button to get him back to talking with them. 

For the military, it is only too happy to take any chance it gets to upgrade its puny  capabilities (yes, it’s true plenty of them do care about the defense of our national patrimony). Yet  it also highlights for its own constituency the key role the military continues to play under the Duterte administration – for or against.

What we don’t know is if a successful sale will mean Senator Dela Rosa will get back his US Visa. Maybe not.

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This was earlier published by Vera Files and news.abs-cbn.com on June 4, 2020.

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Filed under Duterte, Human Rights, International Law, Public Interest, US Pivot

China’s territorial claims and the future of international law in Asia

By Romel Regalado Bagares

While the Chinese Communist Party wrestled with the challenges of political transition at home (including sex scandals, corruption and murder in the highest echelons of power),  the Chinese government has been picking quarrels with its much smaller neighbours over maritime territory.

Tensions over territorial disputes across the Asian region have led observers to wonder whether a China with immense economic needs and superpower ambitions is actually able to follow rules-based maritime regime under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) vital to regional cooperation and stability.

Law of the Sea in the disputes

The UNCLOS establishes the reach of a coastal state’s 12- nautical mile territorial sea, 24-nautical mile contiguous zone, 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone, 200-nautical mile Continental Shelf and its 150-nautical mile extension. It also provides rules for the exploitation of mineral and marine resources found in the sea and the seabed as well as for resolving conflicting maritime claims.

With Japan, China appears to have  recently come dangerously close to a shooting war in a  dispute over the five small uninhabited islands and three rocks of the Senkaku in the East China Sea.

Japan has accused a Chinese warship  of locking its fire-control radar on a Japanese destroyer in the high seas near the islands —definitely an escalation from previous confrontations  between Japan and another claimant-nation, Taiwan, where ships from both sides engaged one another in water cannon -duels.

Indeed, China, which treats Taiwan as an estranged province,  denies the Japanese charge.

Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, an area rich in oil, gas and fishing resources, China is locked in a long-standing dispute with several Southeast Asian nations over the Spratly group of islands, namely, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, the Philippines, Brunei and Indonesia.

China, a signatory to the UNCLOS,  justifies its territorial and maritime claims in the region through its Nine-Dash Line declaration.

Click here for the full essay as it appeared in the University of Exeter’s ThinkIR Blog.

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Filed under Bajo De Masinloc, China, International Law, ITLOS, Nine-Dash Line Claim, Scarborough Shoal, UNCLOS, US Pivot

Taken for a ride, yet again

by Romel Regalado Bagares

A little more than a week ago, local and international news agencies were abuzz with reports about US Defense Secretary Leo Panetta’s announcement of a new “pivot” policy – a shift in American defense posture – one that would mean the redeployment of  60 percent of naval assets to the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2020.

Then as if on cue, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, flew to Manila a few days after Panetta’s announcement for talks with his Philippine military counterparts.

At a press briefing in Manila, Dempsey said the shift would feature “three “‘mores” in US naval operations in the region —more attention, more engagement and more quality.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Del Rosario, reacting to Dempsey’s pronouncements, happily affirmed that the new American defense policy environment would mean Filipinos are to expect more port calls in the Philippines of American navy ships.

As Mr. Panetta was winding up his Asian trip,  President Benigno Aquino III met with President Obama  at the White House and the two leaders would subsequently announce greater cooperation in various areas, notably in common security concerns in the West Philippine Sea.

In addition, Obama promised increased military assistance to help the Philippines build a “credible minimum defense,” including a US$ 30 million grant this year – which is nearly double what it gave its former colony since the latter terminated the presence of US bases at Clark and Subic in 1991 – and a second decommissioned coastguard cutter for the Philippine Navy.

Despite loud denials from the Americans, the “pivot” is seen as an answer to the growing ambitions of China in the region, which threatens US access to international sea lanes crucial to its long-term economic and military interests.

Unprecedented tension between China and the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in May this year seemed to have provided a perfect excuse for the US to reassert its presence in the region.

Indeed, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, testifying before the US Congress, warned against a  China increasingly asserting its dominance in the South China Sea with no qualms about violating the maritime jurisdictions of its neighbors in its quest for minerals and other raw materials its expanded economy needs.

No doubt, the Philippines occupies a strategic place in this major shift in US global defense posture.  Already, the country has proven to be an indispensable element in its global war against terror, with many parts of its archipelago providing  excellent training grounds for its newly-organized highly mobile, quick deployment units under a controversial  Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).

Since May, a slew of US navy ships have called port in the Philippines, and following President Aquino’s US trip, more are expected to arrive, along with more US troops who will be fielded to the country on a rotation basis, purportedly for training and joint exercises with their Filipino counterparts.

We’ve been dubbed, since the Bush years, as a “major non-NATO ally” and three years ago –in the words of President Obama – as the “coordinator” for the US in the ASEAN region.

But do the Americans match their sweet words to the Philippines with equal deeds to help us develop “credible minimum defense”?

At first glance, it does seem like it: the Philippines is supposedly now the largest benefactor of the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Financing budget, receiving $11 million in 2005, $12 million in 2006,  $13 million in 2007 and $30 million this year.

However, we’re not even on the list of the top ten beneficiaries of US defense assistance three years after 9/11, according to data from the US Center for Public Integrity:  (figures have been rounded-off): Israel (US$9 billion), Egypt (US$6 billion), Pakistan (US$4.6 billion), Jordan (US$2.6 billion), Afghanistan (US$2.6 billion), Colombia (US$2 billion), Turkey (US$1.3 billion), Peru (US$446 million), Bolivia (US$320.6 million) and Poland (US$ 313 million).

The Asian country nearest to us who is on the list is Pakistan. Compared to what Pakistan is getting from the US, our share of foreign military financing is peanuts.

Over the last few years, the US has given more than $ 7 billion to Pakistan in direct assistance – that is, in funds to purchase weapons, supplies and equipment, purportedly to help it fight the Taliban. With all that money, it is a wonder how Osama Bin Laden was able to elude Pakistani intelligence, as he was able to live a comfortable existence in a walled off mansion in Abbottabad for many years right under their noses.

Compare that to American military aid to the Philippines, which comes in the form of financing; that is, no money actually reaches Philippine coffers. Funds are directly paid to American firms contracted by the US government to supply mostly refurbished equipment to the Philippine military, like Vietnam-war era helicopters, trucks and patrol boats. Recently, the US has agreed to hand down to us two decommissioned Coastguard cutter but stripped of most of its armaments. The first delivery, which the Philippine Navy renamed BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, was the same vessel that chanced  upon Chinese fishing vessels poaching mostly endangered marine species at Panatag Shoal.

Philippine Navy top brass, on the eve of President Aquino’s US visit, pleaded with US authorities to deliver to us the second Coastguard cutter without removing its armaments.  But the plea from a major non-NATO ally and coordinator for the ASEAN fell on their deaf ears, even if it only concerns two 40-year old ships that have already seen better days.

So, what credible minimum defense capability for the Philippines is the United States talking about? We’ve gotten a raw deal before and we’re getting more of the same treatment from the Americans, who obviously want to keep us in relationship of dependency so that we will always be at their beck and call.

It is no wonder that despite years of American military aid to the Philippines, our armed forces remains the most poorly-equipped in the Asian region. Barya-barya lang at mga pinaglumaan na ang bigay nila sa atin. After all these years, we’re still being treated by the US as its toady and not as its equal.

On the same week Mr. Panetta announced a “pivot” in US defense policy, CNN broke the news that the US government
has decided to cut aid to a Pakistani version of “Sesame Street” because of charges of corruption. The price tag: US$ 20 million.

The Americans like us very much because they get so much from us for so little in return.

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Filed under China, Scarborough Shoal, UNCLOS, US Pivot, Use of Force