By Willa Tac-an and Aaron Tanyag
On the night of October 11, 2014, the lifeless body of Filipino transgender woman Jennifer Laude was found on the bathroom floor of a motel in Olongapo City. A few days later, police investigators pointed to Private First Class Joseph Scott Pemberton of the United States Marines as the primary suspect for the brutal killing. He was in the Philippines to participate in the annual United States-Philippines Amphibious Landing Exercises or PHIBLEX, a joint combat training program that was endorsed through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the two countries.
The killing of Jennifer Laude did not only meet negative reaction from Filipinos and foreigners alike, but also prompted the revival of the debate over the VFA. Many Filipinos, including prominent legislators and social media activists, have called for the ratification and even the abolition of the agreement, citing sovereignty and criminal jurisdiction issues. However, many may be wondering why there are American Soldiers on Philippine soil in the first place. And more importantly, are their concerns for staying beneficial for the Philippines?
The history of the VFA can be traced back to the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) between the Philippines and the United States, signed in the years 1947 and 1951 respectively. The MBA allows the US military to establish military bases on Philippine territory. Through the MDT, both countries would support each other if either one were to be attacked by an external party. In 1991, the Senate of the Philippines decided not to extend this provision, paving the way for the dismantling of the US military bases throughout the country. Seven years later, the VFA was signed which allowed the rotational presence of US military forces in the Philippines and for them to operate and coordinate with the country’s armed forces.
The primary argument of VFA supporters is that it strengthens the strategic partnership of the Philippines and the United States in defense and security matters. The VFA provides logistical support to the Philippine military as it combats both traditional and emerging threats. This support is evident in the Philippines’ fight against terrorism especially in Southern Mindanao. In addition, the US military presence in the Philippines also provides military and technological training to Philippine troops in order to support the country’s maritime security capability. This comes at a time when other countries are aggressively pursuing their respective claims in the West Philippine Sea. The current administration believes that the presence of American soldiers, together with the MDT, can be an effective deterrent to belligerent moves in the disputed islands.
Furthermore, the VFA, including the recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) also supports the modernization of the Philippine Armed Forces as it builds what it calls a “minimum credible defense.” Contrary to popular belief, the VFA and EDCA would not make the Philippine military over-reliant to US military support. The United States’ role would only be in training military personnel to handle newly acquired technologies. The decision on what to procure would remain in the hands of the Philippine government.
Aside from military support, the VFA also plays a key role in providing support to the Philippines humanitarian aid operations. In an article by Rappler, US Ambassador Philip Goldberg stresses the role of the US military when Typhoon Yolanda ravaged most part of the Visayas region. While other countries still had to wait for the decision of the Philippine government to allow their troops to enter our country, the US immediately deployed its own, providing immediate support to the victims and to the national government. The US provided 335,000 liters of water and 36,360 kilos of food and supplies through the USS George Washington. According to Goldberg, this was all possible because of the VFA.
The main concern regarding the VFA is that it abuses US autonomy under Philippine sovereignty. This agreement gives US forces the right to utilize our territories for their own purposes, which has since been abused and could possibly do more harm than good to our resources.
First, the Balikatan exercises, which are projected to improve Philippine military efforts, benefit the US forces more. The US forces that participate in these exercises are based in Japan. However, the Japanese people, especially the residents of Okinawa, oppose the presence of US bases in their country. The reason there was a need for these exercises in the Philippines is that Japan would only allow the US bases to remain in their country if the latter did not practice and test its weapons there.
After transferring operations to the Philippines, the US has said these exercises are to advance the Filipino military in terms of technology and weaponry brought in by the Americans. However, these weapons are brought only during the Balikatan exercises and after the Filipinos have been trained, the Americans will leave with the weapons, defeating the exercises’ purpose. Filipinos thus learn and are trained to utilize military technology they do not even possess.
Second, the VFA expects the US forces to aid in defending our territories against China. However, China has been slowly encroaching Philippine sandbars and waters over the years since the US has left the Philippines in the 1980s. The US has yet to do anything about this matter. Furthermore, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton stated in 2013 that the US would remain neutral during this conflict. This is brought upon by the fact that China owns roughly $17.6 trillion of U.S. bonds. Thus, jeopardizing US-China relations would subsequently jeopardize the US economy, which is currently the Americans’ priority rather than the security of Philippine lands and waters.
In terms of the Mindanao conflict against the Abu Sayyaf, the Philippines is aided by the Americans because this matter is more of an internal and local issue, unlike the West Philippine Sea dispute.
Third, the currently prevailing concern apropos of the VFA is regarding the liabilities of U.S. soldiers who have violated the law on Philippine soil. US soldiers seem to possess diplomatic immunity whenever there are allegations to their criminal activities. Aside from the case of Jennifer Laude, another rape incident, frequently labeled the “Subic Rape Case,” involving four US marines and Suzette Nicolas, a Filipina, occurred in 2005. One soldier, Daniel Smith, was sentenced to 40 years in prison (but confined in the US Embassy in Manila instead of a Philippine jail) while the other three were acquitted. However, there was a recantation in 2009 and three Filipino justices ordered Smith’s release for a review of evidence exhibiting Smith’s innocence. In any case, this gang rape case has raised the issue of probable ongoing crimes and misdemeanors of US soldiers in the Philippines and how the VFA allows the US justice system to intervene, resulting the court proceedings usually in the soldiers’ favor with acquittal or a better sentence.
The VFA is thus more of a political issue than it is military: the conditions with the Japanese bases, the refusal to defend the Philippines from China but not from the Abu Sayyaf, and the lack of criminal accountability. Moreover, the VFA is another means of gaining the political support of the Americans, especially seeing that this agreement is more in favor of American interests.
The title of the agreement, The Visiting Forces Agreement, is problematic in itself; it is a misnomer, if viewed from the Philippine perspective. The Philippines expects the US to protect and defend our country during international disputes although the agreement blatantly states that these US forces are merely “visitors” in our country. In terms of social norm, a visitor is present for social or touristic purposes. This implies that the American military presence in the Philippines is not only temporary, but also does not guarantee that there is protection to be gained. It is not even explicitly stated in the agreement that should there be threats to the safety of the Philippines and its people, the Americans would aid; the agreement expounds mainly upon concerns regarding military personnel and property.
The Philippines faces a number of internal and external threats today. Given the present reality of its armed forces, it would be ambitious for the country to handle all these threats without an ally.
Indeed, a strategic military partnership with a country like the United States will likely benefit the Philippines. But the sovereignty of the country should not be the price for these benefits because such would defeat the very purpose of the military agreement. This agreement leaves the Philippines short-changed because it is the weaker force. Therefore, it is essential that the Philippine government continue to debate this issue. Whether or not it decides to ratify, abolish or maintain it, the decision should be beneficial for both parties. The challenge for the Philippines here is not only how to defend the country’s interest but also how to strike a balance between national security and sovereignty.
A possible way of understanding the VFA is by comparing it to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The members of NATO exercise the right of receiving protection from other members during international conflict. The protection and defense that we expect from the US government and forces during international disputes are more in line with the objectives of NATO. We are expecting this protection from the US, but they cannot guarantee it. The VFA gives the Filipino people reassurance – albeit a faulty one.