Philippines-U.S. Military Talks Hit Snag on Access, Gazmin Says

Talks to boost the U.S. troop presence in the Philippines as part of a broader military cooperation pact have become bogged down in disagreement over access to American facilities.

Discussions that started in August hit an “impasse” with no fixed schedule for the next round, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters in Manila today. “We want equal opportunity and equal access” to U.S. facilities that may be built locally, Gazmin said.

Four rounds of talks held in Washington and Manila have failed to yield an agreement that would expand a joint training exercise under the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty. Negotiators have said U.S. soldiers may be given access to Philippine military camps as part of the new deal.

Negotiators should be transparent about the process to secure public support for a broader agreement, Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone. “Things must be made clear so there is no controversy and the terms must be mutually beneficial.”

The Philippines is seeking to boost its U.S. alliance and modernize its military to counter what it sees as a Chinese bid for greater influence over contested South China Sea waters rich in oil, fish and gas. The Philippines has deepened strategic ties with Japan to further offset China’s assertiveness in the region even as China has agreed to talks on a code of conduct for the seas.

“I am very optimistic that the issues will be resolved,” Gazmin said of the U.S. talks. “It will be difficult at first, but eventually there will be an understanding.”

‘Still Gaps’

The last round of negotiations in early October narrowed discussions to scope, agreed installations and prepositioning of defense equipment, Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said in a statement Oct. 3. “There are still gaps in our positions,” Batino said.

The Philippines may allow the U.S. to build structures on its territory as part of a deal, he told reporters on Sept. 18.

The Philippines has sought arbitration by a United Nations tribunal on its territorial spat with China, and has previously said China could be building a structure on the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a claim China denied. Vietnam and the Philippines have rejected China’s claims in the waters as a basis for joint development of oil and gas reserves.

Still, tensions over the shoal are not the “sum total of our relations” with China, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said on Oct. 24.

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