US Military Presence and Activity in the Philippines

Rey Claro Casambre
Philippine Peace Center
ILPS Philippines Chapter

(Paper read at the conference to launch an international campaign against US overseas military bases, September 20-22, 2003, at Chanai, Crete, Greece.)


Twelve years ago, in September 1991, the Filipino people kicked out US troops and shut downusmilpresencephil
US bases in the Philippines.

Today, US troops are back in the Philippines. Permanently, if the US and Philippine governments would have their way. Displaying utter disregard for Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity, they have circumvented the constitutional ban on foreign military troops and bases. They did this by sneaking two highly questionable military agreements through the token scrutiny of Congress and the Supreme Court, and ramming these roughshod over the people’s protest and opposition.

First, the Philippine Senate ratified a “status-of-forces agreement” — the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in May 1999, opening up the Philippines to US troops and equipment for unspecified military activities for virtually unlimited periods of time. Second, the US Defense Department and the Philippine Department of National Defense entered into an “acquisition and cross-servicing agreement”, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA) last November through their respective Defense Departments allows US forces to access or use Philippine installations and to practically set up their own facilities anywhere on Philippine territory.

The arithmetic is simple:

VFA = Status of Forces Agreement  US TROOPS

MLSA = Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement  US FACILITIES


This time throughout the Philippine archipelago, not just in Clark and Subic (the cites of the big US air and naval bases until 1991). The entire country is now one big US military base.

US Ally or Vassal State?

The Philippines has long been known to be the closest ally of the US in Southeast Asia. But in fact, it is more accurately described as a neo-colonial vassal state. A half century of colonial rule and another half century as a neo-colonial client state has secured for the US an all-too compliant and servile ruling elite and a population that still looks up to the US as a benevolent Big White Brother.

Factions of the ruling elite vie for US support, with the most favored assured of winning the elections and remaining in power. Thus, the US has several stables of aspiring puppets, and enjoys the luxury of allowing whoever could most effectively serve its interest to rule.

What is not too well-known is that outside Malacanang (Presidential Palace), the most trusted and reliable subalterns of the US in the Philippines are to be found not in the civil bureaucracy but in the military: the armed forces and the police. Since its formation under American colonial rule, the Philippine military has always been oriented, trained, supplied and directed by the US. This went on even after the Philippines was granted political independence in 1946 through a series of military treaties and agreements such as the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT, Military Assistance Pact (MAP), and the Military Bases Agreement (MBA).

In 1991, the MBA expired and a draft US-RP Treaty of Friendship which would have allowed the continuation of US Bases was rejected by a Philippine Senate in the face of massive demonstrations for the expulsion of the US Bases. This was followed by a brief period of feverish but low-profile negotiations for a Status-of-Forces Agreement (SOFA) that would allow the temporary presence of US troops in the Philippines, and an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agreement (ACSA) that would allow the US to use Philippine facilities for training, repairs and other services, port calls, pre-positioning of war materiel, and other logistic support.

Using its assets in the bureaucracy and the military, the US eventually secured the VFA in 1999 despite widespread protest and outrage over its onerous and blatantly one-sided provisions. Joint military exercises have been resumed since then, all of them low-key if not secret.

Up until 9-11. Then President Macapagal-Arroyo loudly proclaimed her government’s all out support for “Operation Enduring Freedom”. In November 2001, she accepted George W. Bush’s offer for US troops and equipment purportedly to help the Philippine military wipe out the Abu Sayyaf, a bandit group once linked to Al Qaeda, with a paltry sum of military and economic aid as a thinly veiled “reward”. Bush and Macapagal-Arroyo would not have been so brazen in cutting this deal and publicly announcing it had not the September 11 bombings occurred.

Enter the Dragon: “Balikatan Joint Military Training Exercises”

In the first half of 2002, more than 3,000 US troops came to the Philippines and participated in offensive operations against the Abu Sayyaf group. The relative ease by which Bush and Macapagal-Arroyo were able to pass off the “Balikatan 02-1” as a legitimate Joint Military Training Exercise in accordance with the MDT and VFA owes not so much to the merit of their arguments as to the overwhelming sentiment that the Abu Sayyaf deserve to be blown off this planet, the sooner the better. The general perception was that the US abundantly had the motivation and the means to locate and pulverize the Abu Sayyaf, the two things the AFP had displayed a miserable lack of, ergo let the Americanos “just do it”.

Protests and objections were not lacking. US Troops Out Now!, a broad multisectoral coalition of patriotic organizations and individuals, condemned “Balikatan 02-1” and the “war against terror” as a mere pretext for allowing the entry of US troops in violation of Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity.

President Macapagal-Arroyo has unabashedly declared that there will be more “Balikatans” in 2003 and in the coming years. True enough, while “Balikatan 02-1″ was underway, another joint military exercise was being held in another island. And as some of the US troops packed up and returned to their home bases, other troops arrived for a joint naval evacuation and rescue exercise. Furthermore, long after the joint training exercises were over, there are still hundreds of US Marines and Special Forces elements left behind at Basilan and elsewhere in Southwestern Mindanao purportedly to finish the public works and construction projects jointly undertaken by the US and Philippine troops as part of “humanitarian operations” in the area and to defend these from hostile attacks.

All these have further proven the critics and oppositors of the VFA right. The VFA will allow the stationing of US troops in the country for indefinite periods of time, not to mention granting them immunity from criminal prosecution for offenses committed while “on duty”.

Recently, the White House, State Department and Pentagon announced that US forces will engage in combat operations in another round of “joint military exercises” against the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu. The US also reportedly proposed that a certain area be assigned as the US’ “area of responsibility” (AOR) where its troops can operate alone, separate from Philippine troops, and not under a Filipino commander3. The Philippine government quickly denied this and signaled the US that they could not get away with such a blatant violation of the constitution.

The message however, is clear: US troops are not only here to stay, they will continue to come in greater force and continue to intervene militarily in the country’s internal affairs.

US Global Interests & Military Objectives

If “Balikatan 02-1” and the “war against terrorism” were mere pretexts for US presence, what then were the US troops really doing in Basilan, Zamboanga, and for that matter in all the other “Balikatan” areas? To answer this question, we would need to look at the US’ global military objectives, policies, strategy and tactics

The Quadrennial Defense Review Report (Sept 30, 2001) published by the US Department of Defense candidly states that “US interests, responsibilities and commitments span the world”. The QDRR 2001 explicitly states:

…The global nature of US interests and obligations implies that full spectrum dominance will continue to depend on overseas presence and power projection capabilities.

One can easily see that the US can invoke “US national interest” to justify US military presence and, if necessary, military intervention in any place in the world. In fact, US military strategy is designed to do precisely that.

The US’ conduct of the Afghanistan war showed a clear break from the more passive “multilateral approach” to a more aggressive unilateral approach and military posture. These changes are also reflected in the QDRR 2001, in particular Sections III. Paradigm Shift in Force Planning and IV Reorienting the US Military Global Posture.

The “paradigm shift” is a shift from “rapid deployment” to any given “trouble spot” to “forward stationing” and “forward deployment” in all potential theaters of war. The object is to station or deploy sufficient US forces in all critical regions worldwide in order to deter any threats to US interests in the region; and if deterrence fails, to defeat these threats with a minimum of reinforcements from other theaters or regions. Further, the “paradigm shift” arrogantly and brazenly states that the military posture shall preserve “the President’s option to call for a decisive victory… “including the possibility of regime change or occupation”. We can see in the Iraq invasion and occupation, the application of the QDRR 2001 as an unabashed handbook of US aggression and intervention, in blatant violation of international law.

QDDR2001 envisages the reorientation of US military posture to include, among others:

  • increase in aircraft carrier battlegroup presence and homeporting an additional three to four surface combatants, and guided cruise missile submarines (SSGNs)in the Western Pacific,
  • increase in contingency basing in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and in the Arabian Gulf….and sufficient en route infrastructure for refuelling and logistics to support operations in the Arabian Gulf or Western Pacific Areas
  • new concepts of maritime pre-positioning…high-speed sealift, and new amphibious capabilities for the Marine Corps…. conducting training for littoral warfare in the Western Pacific for the Marine Corps (in coordination with “allies and friends”).

Since 9-11, this “paradigm shift” has already resulted in the establishment of additional bases, forward stationed and forward deployed forces notably in the Balkans, Central Asia, West Asia or the Middle East, and in the East Asia-Pacific Region.

Access or Bases?

It is in the context of the renewed US drive for military bases and access agreements all over the world that the question of US basing in the Philippines should be viewed. Both US and Philippine governments, in attaining the VFA and the MLSA, repeatedly profess that the US is no longer interested in setting up US military bases in the Philippines. The argument is that with the end of the Cold War following the collapse of the East European and Soviet regimes in 1989 and 1991, the US no longer needs these bases and has in fact dismantled many of them worldwide. Further, the US has shifted its strategy to the more economical forward deployment and pre-positioning which would require not permanent bases but mere access agreements with its allies worldwide for limited and temporary use of facilities.

This was before Sept 11. 9-11 gave Bush’s drive a big and timely boost by generating a wave of domestic and international support for his “war vs. terrorism” that translated into a bipartisan Congressional approval of his defense budget. According to the Defense Department’s Base Structure Report the US currently has military bases in at least 38 countries worldwide, not including newly acquired bases, forward bases such as in Saudi Arabia and the Balkans, and considerable troop concentrations in Central Asia (60,000) since 9-11.

Considering (1) the importance of East Asia to US global interests, or more particularly to its drive to expand and consolidate its hegemony, (2) the strategic geographic position of the Philippines in Southeast Asia, (3) the renewed drive of the US to set up military installations worldwide after 9-11, we can confidently conclude that the US is seeking to reestablish and even upgrade its military bases in the Philippines.

Southeast Asia is located at the center of an arc US military strategy refers to as “the East Asia littoral” — beginning with the concentration of industrial and technological power in Japan, Korea, and Eastern China, down to the resources and manpower-rich Southeast Asian countries and the South China Sea through which half — or $500 billion worth– of world trade annually passes, to the Indian sub-continent and the oil-rich Middle East. This arc also encircles China, which the US considers as its potential long-term peer rival.

The 1998 US Security Strategy for East Asia-Pacific Region states:

Maintaining an overseas military presence is a cornerstone of US National Security Strategy and a key element of US military policy of “shape, respond, and prepare”. In Asia, US force presence plays a particular key role in promoting peace and security in regional affairs.

The Philippines is at the center of Southeast Asia, in which the US still does not have a single military base. Strategy studies for the US Armed Forces, such as the Rand Corporation’s, point to the unique geographical and socio-political-economic vantage position of the Philippines as the necessary site for large permanent US military bases.

In addition to the factors above, the enthusiasm with which the Macapagal-Arroyo government supports Bush’ “war on terror” and the relative openness of the population to US presence, are factors that would allow the US to push beyond the VFA and MLSA or for more favorable terms in agreements and treaties.

Finally, the question must be asked, if the Abu Sayyaf and the Al Qaeda were only pretexts for re-establishing a “robust” and eventually permanent presence of US troops in the Philippines, who are its real targets? Evidently, the targets are those whom the US considers its long-term enemies. Foremost is the CPP-NDF and New People’s Army, which it includes in its list of “terrorist organizations”, just as it targets all anti-imperialist organizations, armed and unarmed, that oppose its world hegemonic designs.

No less than US State Secretary Colin Powell confirmed this in his remarks to Nepalese King Gyandera and Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in Kathmandu last January 18:

“You have a Maoist insurgency that’s trying to overthrow the government, and this really is the kind of thing that we are fighting against throughout the world.”

Filipino people join the struggle against all overseas US bases

There is now a broad and strong people’s movement against US military presence and intervention in the Philippines and in the East Asia-Pacific region. It consists of individuals and mass organizations of workers, peasants, youth, women, indigenous peoples, and various professionals. The Filipino people have not too long ago succeeded in throwing out US military bases in the Philippines. There is no doubt that they can once again muster their collective strength to oppose the renewed US intervention not only in the Philippines but in the entire region.

The difference is that today, they are more aware of the internationalist dimension of their struggle, of the fact that they must fight not only US intervention in the Philippines but also the US war of terror in the region and all over the world. Just as their victory against the US bases was brought about by the Filipino people’s unity in struggle, they now close ranks with the peoples of the world opposing all overseas US military bases, and fighting US imperialism and war.

In this regard we would like to report that the ILPS Philippines Chapter and individual ILPS member organizations in the Philippines are coordinating or in touch with anti-bases, anti-nuclear and anti-imperialist formations in the East Asia-Pacific especially in Japan, Korea and Australia.

Many of these formations have recently come together in an International Solidarity Mission in the Philippines last year. Last March, an International Conference on US Military Activities and the Environment was held in Okinawa, Japan. Next week, on Sept. 28, the Fremantle Anti-Nuclear Group (FANG) will hold a protest action against the US Navy’s “Sea Swap Exercise” and against US military presence in Western Australia in general. I propose that this conference send its message of solidarity and support for this action.

There is an urgent need and a strong potential for reviving, rebuilding and further revitalizing an anti-bases network and campaign in the East Asia-Pacific region, and link it to an international network and campaign to oppose and shut down US overseas military bases.

A lot of study, research, education and propaganda must be done. In this connection we propose that this conference be a part of the current effort to set up an ILPS study commission on the concern for peace against imperialist wars of aggression and intervention and against nuclear and other weapons of genocide and mass destruction. This is without prejudice to contributing to other study commissions likewise related to the issue of US overseas military bases. The forthcoming activity Mumbai Resistance next January is one opportunity for holding these fora.

We propose further the immediate holding of sectoral and multi-sectoral, local and regional conferences, seminars and other fora for exchanges of information and experiences, for building linkages, networks and formations, and for planning and coordinating various actions.

The ILPS Philippines Chapter is prepared and willing to do its part in this important endeavor.