By Priscilla A. Tacujan
Philippine undersecretary of defense Lorenzo Batino said April 11 that negotiators had reached “consensus on key points” of a new deal to allow a greater U.S. rotational military presence in the Philippines. But this raises a dilemma for Philippine lawmakers attempting to define and craft “an independent and nationalistic” foreign policy.
At what point should a country compromise its sovereignty in order to accommodate global and regional security concerns? Is seeking security alliances for protection from external aggressions a threat to sovereignty? At the crux of this dilemma is a provision in the 1987 Philippine Constitution that prohibits the establishment of foreign military bases and foreign combat operations in the country.
One of the overarching principles of the Philippine Constitution is to uphold and promote the territorial integrity of the country. As an archipelago with over 7,000 islands and a porous border to secure and protect, the Philippines is vulnerable to external aggression. With China’s aggressive encroachments in the South China Sea, seeking defense cooperation agreements with the United States and other allies — Japan, Australia, South Korea, and ASEAN countries — should be foremost in the minds of Philippine lawmakers. Without such security partnerships, the Philippines won’t be able to defend and protect itself against a belligerent neighbor.
The proposed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines will allow the U.S. military to have greater access to Philippine bases and increase the number of U.S. troops deployed to the Philippines on a rotational basis. According to chief presidential legal counsel Benjamin Caguioa, this security agreement “merely implements the general provisions” of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty between the United States and the Philippines.
That treaty calls for mutual support between the two countries in the event that either is attacked by an external party. The upcoming visit of President Barack Obama to the Philippines in late April presents an opportune time for the Philippine government to seal the deal.
However, some Philippine lawmakers believe that the new security agreement must be elevated to a treaty and ratified by the Philippine upper house. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago contends that the Mutual Defense Treaty is not sufficient to justify the EDCA. Other lawmakers support this position, insisting that any military agreement with the United States should not violate any provisions of the Philippine Constitution.
Expressing the strongest opposition to the EDCA, left-leaning members of the Philippine Congress argue that the presence of U.S. troops would only increase the tension in the region. According to Walden Bello, a large U.S. presence would “transform the regional context into a superpower conflict, thus marginalizing the territorial question and the possibility for its resolution.” The Communist Party of the Philippines also weighed in: “The new military treaty is bound to be as perfidious and violative of Philippine sovereignty as all previous agreements.”
A Call for Principled Statesmanship
Some Philippine lawmakers are worried that a larger U.S. presence in the Philippines will provoke aggression from China, which is openly conducting military operations to stake its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. This is an accommodationist response to China’s blatant display of power. It seems that anti-U.S. sentiment is driving Philippine lawmakers and activist groups to adopt a hard stance even though the United States’ security interests do not conflict with those of the Philippines. In fact, the U.S. military presence deters blatant aggression by China on the high seas. Viewing the United States as a former colonial master that is seeking to come back to lord it over the Philippines once again suggests that these officials may be steeped in their prejudices while oblivious to regional threats.
Philippine lawmakers must examine the myopic sense of nationalism that imbues their worldview and informs their foreign policy. Other countries like Japan and Singapore understand the strategic importance of coupling national security interests with international military alliances. A strong foreign policy means a country must take what it can to promote its national interests while giving what it can toward building a more stable, secure, and peaceful world for itself and its partners.
Philippine officials must seek a prudent and well-measured approach to challenges involving global and regional security interests, without compromising the country’s own security. As elected representatives of a democratic republic, they are entrusted with a duty to defend the territorial integrity of their country against aggressors in the region. Their policy positions must be thought through with objectivity, reason, and a sense of what is right for the Filipino people they claim to serve. This requires statesmanship of reasonable expectations, goodwill, and wise judgment.
Dr. Priscilla A.Tacujan is an independent consultant and a political science graduate of Claremont Graduate University, Claremont, California living in Northern Virginia and originally from the Philippines.