MANILA, Philippines – Any move by the Philippines to give its allies – particularly the United States and Japan – access to its military bases will be in accordance with the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said yesterday.
In an interview over state-run radio station dzRB, Valte also said the Department of National Defense is still finalizing details of plans for increased “rotational presence” of US forces in the country under the VFA.
On Friday, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin voiced the need for the country to strengthen its military partnerships with its allies to counter China’s “bullying” in the West Philippine Sea.
An enhanced cooperation should include allowing allies access to air and naval facilities in the country, he said.
On the same day, Valte clarified that President Aquino had not yet approved the plan.
In her radio interview yesterday, Valte said the Palace is open to having discussions with senators and other lawmakers to allay their fears that the planned bases access agreement might be unconstitutional.
“Of course, we are open to their concerns. We also understand their concerns, which is why we are open to having these discussions,” Valte said.
Valte said the government would see to it that whatever arrangement is adopted to open the country’s bases to allies would be in accordance with the Constitution.
Gazmin earlier emphasized that an enhanced military cooperation with allies would not involve the setting up of new bases because of a constitutional prohibition.
The Philippines and the US discussed the access agreement during a ministerial consultation in Washington last year, he said.
If given greater access to Philippine air and naval facilities, US warships would be able to launch security operations in the West Philippine Sea more freely, according to the defense chief.
Valte defended the plan, saying the country has the right to do whatever it sees necessary in its territory. She added the latest initiative was not meant to antagonize Beijing.
While the proposed access arrangement has sparked worries among some lawmakers, Sen. Loren Legarda said there is no need for the Senate to get involved in the issue, as executive officials have so far satisfactorily explained the parameters of the plan.
“The VFA will continue to be enforced to ensure that US military presence remains within the bounds of the VFA framework. The same is true with other countries where we have existing Status of Visiting Forces Agreements already ratified by the Senate,” said Legarda, chair of the Senate committee on foreign relations.
“As it is there are joint exercises and initiatives, and to a certain extent, access to our facilities is allowed but according to well-defined terms. Under this scenario, there is no need for renewed Senate approval,” she added.
Senators Panfilo Lacson and Vicente Sotto III have advised executive officials to consult the Senate on the matter as a matter of courtesy.
Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile said such an arrangement may be a violation of the Constitution as well as of provisions of the VFA.
All treaties and international agreements have to go through the Senate for ratification under Philippine laws. The Senate oversight committee on the VFA is empowered to review whatever issues come up in relation to the deal.
“VFA does not provide for the presence of any foreign military bases,” Enrile said.
“Temporary or whatever term they use – no military bases. If it assumes a certain degree of permanence or stability, then it’s no longer visiting forces,” he added.
But Legarda said access is allowed under the VFA.
“The Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces are pursuing a modernization program as part of efforts to strengthen our defense capabilities,” Legarda said.
“Allowing access to US military forces to our bases may be done but strictly under the purview of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” she added.
Another lawmaker, Parañaque City Rep. Roilo Golez, said he is strongly in favor of plans to allow the US and Japan to use the country’s military facilities. He said such a privilege should also be extended to other friendly countries.
Golez, a former national security adviser, said war assets like ships and planes of India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam should also be given access to Philippine military bases for the purpose of re-fueling, rest and recreation, replenishment of provisions and other purposes.
“Access is a normal gesture of one ally to another, in the same way that our newly-acquired converted cutter, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz, is now docked in San Diego, California en route to the Philippines,” Golez said.
“Alliances are also very normal sovereign acts of independent countries, big or small, strong or weak, and these acts do not diminish, but even strengthen, one’s sovereignty,” he said.
He cited alliances entered into by then super power Great Britain in the 19th century to confront France.
He said even Chinese navy ships conduct regular port visits to Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Maldives as part of Beijing’s so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean, apparently to extend its navy’s influence up to the Horn of Africa.
“I say we ignore the pronouncements of the leftist militant groups who reflexively object to the presence of military assets from the US, but are curiously silent about the permanent presence of Chinese troops and warships in the Mischief Reef within our exclusive economic zone and their seizure of the Panatag Shoal,” Golez said.
But he said, “Their voices should be respected as part of the necessary democratic debate.”