US presence ‘needed against China’

JOINT EXERCISES. An unmanned aerial surveillance vehicle is launched by joint US and Filipino naval forces aboard a speedboat off Sangley Point, Cavite, on June 28, 2013.

MANILA — The presence of American forces in the country will help deter foreign aggressors while the Philippines builds up its military, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Friday.

In explaining the need to allow American access to its two former military bases in Subic and Clark, Gazmin pointed to the country’s  teritorial dispute with China, which he said is using its military might in claiming a number of islets and shoals in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) that clearly belong to the Philippines under the United Nations Convention on the Rules of the Sea (UNCLOS).

“At this point in time we cannot stand alone. We need allies while we build up our military,” Gazmin said in Filipino. “If we do not do this, we will continue to be bullied.”

He said China continues to intrude in Philippine territory. “So what do we do, wait until they’ve reached out doorstep? They’re already in our garage,” he said.

Reports that the Philippines plans to grant access to US forces has elicited a sharp response from China.

Gazmin said that it is China’s prerogative but that would not prevent the Philippines from collaborating with the US and other strategic allies like Japan, which also has a similar territorial dispute with the Beijing.

Asked if the US has acknowledged the Philippine intent, Gazmin cited the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, which he said clearly stipulates the two countries’ obligations to each other when attacked by a foreign aggressor.

Defense lawyers are studying the agreement that would formalize the granting of US access to its former bases, taking into account the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), Gazmin said.

The study will determine if the agreement would still be subject to congressional approval.
Gazmin also said the access agreement was considered in connection with the increased presence of US forces in the Asia Pacific Region.

Under the agreement, the US can bring in modern and sophisticated equipment, Gazmin said.

But a Malacañang official said on Friday the access arrangement have not been approved by President Benigno Aquino 3rd.

Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte said that the access agreement was still on the “proposal levels.”

Valte noted that the Defense department is still looking into several proposals.

“Secretary Gazmin said that they are still threshing that out, they are still working on it,” Valte said.

She assured that the agreement will not go against the Constitution and the VFA.

“Everybody has agreed on an increased rotational presence here, not just in the country, but the US also has announced that there will be a rebalancing of sorts in the region,” Valte said.

She downplayed speculation the Philippines was planning to build new air and naval bases for the Americans in the face of China’s growing aggression.

“At this point, what we do within our territory is perfectly within our rights and as such we see no reason why it should raise any particular tensions,” Valte said.