End permanent US military presence in the Philippines

Marco Valbuena | Chief Information Officer | Communist Party of the Philippines

July 13, 2023

With the acquiescence of the Marcos regime, and in exchange for promises of US business investments and loans from the World Bank, the US military has strengthened and expanded its permanent military presence in the Philippines. At any given time, the number of US combat troops in the Philippines can easily run to a few thousands with their slew of equipment and weapons of war.

Under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the US military and its personnel enjoy extraterritorial rights that make a mockery of claims of Philippine sovereignty. This further degrades the country’s status to US military outpost, to the detriment of the Filipino people.

The psywar line being hyped up by the US imperialists and its apologists is that the country needs the US military power to defend against or deter superpower China’s incursions into our maritime territory. US imperialism, which colonized the country for close to half-a-century, hypocritically declares “iron-clad friendship” and “mutual defense,” while American giant naval warships anchor on Philippine waters and American soldiers trample on country’s soil.

Joint exercises as pretext

According to the US armed forces, it will be conducting this year more than 500 war games, military exercises, joint trainings of all sizes and all kinds in the Philippines, together with its stooges in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). These include the Balikatan war exercises last April, which was historically the biggest, in which 12,600 American troops stormed the country with their naval war ships and military transport planes.

Neither the US embassy nor the AFP has released a complete list of these 500 activities. Since the Balikatan exercises, however, news organizations have published reports of at least seven other exercises conducted over the past few months, including:

a) the Salaknib war exercises held from March 13 to April 4 at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija and other areas in Central Luzon and Northern Luzon, participated in by at least 3,000 troops from the US military and the AFP.

b) the Cope Thunder 23-1 aerial war exercises conducted last May 1-12 in Clark Air Base;

c) the trilateral coast guard exercises with the US and Japan last June 1-8 involving several hundred personnel, held off the coasts of Mariveles, Bataan;

d) mobilization exercises of Naval Forces of North Luzon mobilization exercise held last June 29-July 3 at the Camilo Osias Naval Base in Cagayan, where US facilities are being constructed;

e) Marine Aviation Support Activity, which started on July 6 and slated to end on July 21, involving live fire drills, air assaults, airfield seizure, with more than 2,700 personnel and 43 military aircraft, to be conducted in various areas in Luzon and Visayas;

f) Cope Thunder 23-2, aerial war exercises, which started last July 2 and set to end on July 21, to be held in various parts of Luzon and Visayas; and

g) Long-range rocket system training, which was concluded last July 9 with live-fire exercises using High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (Himars) at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.

These war exercises serve the US objective of “interoperability,” a euphemism for operational control, which in military parlance, means taking command of a military unit or organization. All these exercises involve training troops of the AFP in using American military equipment, as well as in US operational maneuvers, in order to ensure that the AFP will serve US military purposes in the event of an armed conflict.

These war exercises also serve to induce the sale of US weaponry to the Philippines. Officers of the AFP shamelessly drool during these “joint exercises” at the sight of the US war machine. The so-called “AFP modernization” program, which this year received a ₱27.5 billion budget, is nothing but a US-designed program for buying second-hand, surplus or previous-generation equipment which reinforces the country’s military dependence on the US, including reliance on US suppliers of consumables (bullets and bombs) and spare parts for maintenance.

In addition to the above recent exercises, the US conducted joint naval war exercises with Canada at the Taiwan Strait early last June, and is set to conduct other joint military activities with armed forces of Australia, Japan and other countries in and around the West Philippine Sea in the coming months. Over the past years, the US has been goading its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, US) security pact to deploy its naval warships and hold “joint patrols” with the US under its overall strategy of containing China’s growing economic and military strength, and building military fortifications within what it calls the “first island chain” surrounding China.

To intensify its operations aimed at China, the US has increasingly strengthened its foothold in the Philippines which serve as a crucial outpost from the perspective of US geopolitical and military strategy. There is now the increasing number of US troops and war equipment and matériel stationed in its bases and facilities in the country, which in turn, serve as magnet for possible acts of armed reprisals by China and other US adversaries.

US extraterritorial rights and extraordinary privileges in the Philippines

Recent reports of US military aircraft flying within Philippine airspace and using facilities including the international airports in Manila and elsewhere without prior knowledge of civilian authorities underscore the loss of sovereignty under the EDCA and other lopsided military agreements between the Philippines and the United States. These agreements afford the US military and its personnel, as well as contractors, extraterritorial rights and extraordinary privileges. With the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and EDCA, American troops arrogantly swagger around and treat the entire country as a US military base.

Under the EDCA, the US is given “operational control” inside “agreed locations” within the military camps of the AFP. Within these areas, the US military can construct bases and facilities and carry out a broad range of operations and activities from “training; transit; support and related activities; refuelling of aircraft; bunkering of vessels; temporary maintenance of vehicles, vessels and aircraft; temporary accommodation of personnel; communications; prepositioning of equipment, supplies and materiel; deploying forces and materiel.”

These “agreed locations” are made available to the US “without rental or similar costs.” The agreement does not oblige the US to pay for any damage to the environment that may be caused by the release of toxic or hazardous material. Recall that the US left Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base without cleaning up their environmental waste which poisoned groundwater and aquatic water and wildlife.

The EDCA also specifically provides the US access to public land and facilities such as roads, ports and airfields, including those owned or controlled by local governments.

In addition to access to roads, ports and airfields, the EDCA allows the US to operate its own telecommunication system, access to “all necessary radio spectrum” that shall be provided “free of cost.” This is in stark contrast to how Filipino entities must secure licenses and pay fees to make use of radio waves. Furthermore, the EDCA grants the US use of water, electricity and other public utilities at cheaper rates, on terms and conditions, including rates or charges, equal to that enjoyed by the Philippine government and the AFP.

The US military exercises absolute control over these locations until these are “no longer required by the United States,” meaning as long as it wants and deems necessary to use these locations. The Philippine government surrendered sovereignty and cannot exercise authority over US military bases and facilities unless under procedures approved by US.

American servicemen are granted special legal status and are by default not covered by Philippine criminal and civil laws when they stay in the Philippines. Historically and until today, the presence of US military troops always come with grave social costs including prostitution, economic dislocation and poverty. Under the VFA, abuses and crimes committed by American soldiers while in the Philippines have gone unpunished. Even in high-profile cases as the Subic Rape Case and the killing of Jennifer Laude, convicted American servicemen enjoyed legal privileges and were flown out of the country without suffering the penalties for their crimes.

Abrogate EDCA and other lopsided agreements, send home all US troops

The Filipino people must demand the abrogation of the EDCA, the VFA, the Mutual Defense Treaty and all other lopsided military agreements with the US. These agreements are the starkest manifestations of the complete lack of Philippine sovereignty. These agreements bind the country’s foreign policy to the US and take away the Filipino people’s prerogative to determine its national destiny.

These agreements all effectively allow the United States to use the Philippines as a large military base in service of US geopolitical interests in the region. In the face of rising imperialist rivalries between the US and China, and increasing US war provocations, these serve to pull the country into the vortex of a possible war among the superpower giants.

The Philippines should not rely on the US military or any other sovereign power to defend its land and territorial waters. To do so is to place the country’s sovereignty in the hands of the US. The Filipino people must take the initiative to demand an end to the rising spiral of military deployments which brings the regional and international situation closer to the brink of open military conflict.

The Filipino people must demand the abrogation of the lopsided military agreements that reinforce Philippine military dependence on the US. They must resist the subservience of the Marcos regime to US military, economic and political dictates. The country must pursue a policy of peace while raising its independent capability as a country to defend itself militarily, that can only be realized through economic and political independence and genuine national freedom.