Philippines Near Pact to Increase U.S. Troops, Aquino Says

Philippine President Benigno Aquino
Benigno Aquino, the Philippines' president, reacts during an interview in the Malacanang Palace compound in Manila on Feb. 19, 2014. Photographer: Julian Abram Wainwright/Bloomberg

The Philippines is “very close” to completing an agreement to boost the number of U.S. troops allowed into the country at a time of growing tension over territorial disputes with China, President Benigno Aquino said.

“I haven’t been presented major sticking points, so I assume we are close to it,” Aquino, 54, said yesterday in an interview at his office in Manila. “I won’t say that we’re a day away from it, but we’re very, very close.”

Officials from the Philippines and the U.S. plan a sixth round of talks in early March, after discussions hit a snag last year on issues of access and control over facilities that may be built by the U.S. “They’re still crafting the exact language as to how to address that, but we do recognize, we do need facilities to be able to enhance ours and their abilities,” Aquino said.

The Philippines is locked in a dispute with China over territory in the resource-rich South China Sea, which has led to tit-for-tat comments in recent months even as economic ties remain strong. The tensions have spurred the Philippines to seek to expand military links with the U.S., a treaty ally, while building a further buffer by strengthening strategic ties with countries such as Japan.

Negotiators may seek to wrap up an agreement before U.S. President Barack Obama visits the Philippines in April as part of a trip to the region that also takes in Japan.

Subic Bay

The U.S. ended its permanent military presence in the Philippines with the closing of the Subic Bay base after the lease ended in 1991. The U.S. rotates 500 troops into the southern Philippines each year to aid in counter-terrorism operations, while 6,500 come annually for exercises, said Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala, a spokesman for the Philippine military.

Under the current negotiations, the Philippines may give the U.S. access to bases including Subic Bay, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in August.

China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said the U.S. and the Philippines had a “special” arrangement given their history. “This type of development should help safeguard peace and stability in the region and not the opposite,” Hua told reporters today in Beijing.

Aquino in the interview sought to couch relations as not being “we are against China,” while calling for consistency from Beijing on its policies in the region. “Stability promotes trade and creates a bigger market for everybody, which enhances the ability to prosper,” he said.

UN Arbitration

The Philippines also needed to chart its own foreign policy without being dependent on other countries to solve its problems, Aquino said. Manila has sought arbitration by the United Nations on the dueling claims in the South China Sea, a process China has said it does not recognize.

“This is our problem, we are primarily responsible for it,” Aquino said of the dispute. “Nobody will champion our rights if we are not able to champion our rights first.”

Aquino in an interview with the New York Times published Feb. 5 sought global support to defend territory in the South China Sea from China, drawing a parallel with the West’s failure to back Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler’s demands for the Sudetenland in 1938.

The official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary response that Aquino was ignorant to compare China to Nazi Germany, while the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, said in an interview on Feb. 9 that Aquino’s comments were “not helpful.”

Air Zone

“Aquino is looked at as the point man of American foreign policy,” said Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University. “The Philippines believes that if we take a tough stand versus China, America will support us, but clearly the U.S. is saying the China issue should be settled in a peaceful way,” Lim said today by phone.

China’s territorial claims are “excessive,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters in Manila today at a joint briefing with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

“We believe it is in gross violation of international law,” he said. “We believe that we have exhausted all possibilities. We have attempted a political solution. We have attempted a diplomatic solution. We’ve come to the last resort, which is arbitration.”

Aquino in the interview echoed other Southeast Asian officials in warning China not to seek to replicate in the South China Sea the air defense identification zone it announced in November over territory in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan. “That shouldn’t be a unilateral thing, it does affect so many other countries,” he said yesterday.

Conduct Code

China agreed last July at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-hosted forum in Brunei to work toward rules to avoid conflict in the waters. Still, there has not been major progress on developing a code of conduct, and China introduced fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

The Philippines is awaiting the start of formal talks on the code of conduct, Aquino said. “I would like to think the collective effort is pushing the formulation of this code,” he said.

The South China Sea is also claimed in part by countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and includes some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.

‘An Understanding’

“On the issue concerning the South China Sea, people shouldn’t be worried, China and Asean countries have had an understanding regarding this,” the China Foreign Ministry’s Hua said, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. “Both sides will continue to safeguard peace and stability in the region.”

Australia takes no position on the competing claims and encourages a quick completion of code-of-conduct talks, Bishop told reporters at the Manila briefing.

“We urge all sides not to escalate tensions, to recognize that many countries have a deep interest in ensuring that there is peace and cooperation between China and Japan,” she said. “Sixty percent of our exports pass through the South China Sea, 40 percent of our imports. We are concerned that there be stability and peace in the region.”