Monday, February 20, 2012


WASHINGTON D.C. The scheduled 2x2 ministerial meeting in Washington DC was pushed back from March to April to reportedly give Philippine defense officials more time to finish drawing up new plans even as the United States showed eagerness to ramp up its forces there as early as possible.

The US conveyed its readiness to expand military forces in the Philippines during the 2nd Bilateral Strategic Dialogue here last month. The move is part of a shift in America’s security strategy that emphasizes the Asia-Pacific and Middle East regions.

Philippine officials are reportedly pressed to update or come up with new plans to enable the increased US military presence in the country, short of reopening their old bases.

The US closed down its bases in Clark and Subic two decades ago after the Philippine Senate voted to close them down, following the 1986 Constitution that bans permanent foreign military forces.

As longstanding treaty allies, the US and Philippines conducts yearly joint training exercises. The largest of them are the “Balikatan” (translates roughly in the vernacular as “shoulder to shoulder”) and the amphibious Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training or CARAT.

The US plans to rotate as many as 4,000 Marines in the region, including the Philippines according to a report from the Pacific Daily News. Meanwhile, the US Special Operations Command has announced plans to beef up its own forces, including the estimated 600 troops in Mindanao.

The US and Japan are negotiating the future of the Marines’ Futenma Air Station in Okinawa that was supposed to be relocated to another part of the province. Okinawans are protesting the presence of US bases and want them moved to other parts of Japan.

An estimated 4,700 Marines from Okinawa are slated to be redeployed to Guam (the total number under a 2006 agreement calls for the withdrawal of 8,000 soldiers). But that would mean beefing up existing facilities in Guam and President Barack Obama reportedly balked after seeing the tab that could reach $21 billion.

The US Department of Defense now plans to rotate as many as 4,000 Marines to Australia, Hawaii and the Philippines, including forward operating bases in Sulu and Zamboanga City, according to various news reports.

The US keeps about 300-600 Special Operations troops in Mindanao to help the Philippine military combat the al-Qaeda-affiliated Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). Earlier this month, a top terror commander Umbra Jumdail alias Dr. Abu Pula was killed in a US-backed airstrike in Sulu.

Two leaders of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia franchise Jemaa Islamiya, Malaysain Zulfikli bin Hir alias Marwan and Singaporean Abdullah Ali alias Muawiyah were reportedly killed but that has not been confirmed and the Philippine Army cannot produce their bodies.

Meanwhile, Adm. Bill McRaven, the new head of the US Special Operations Command and the man credited with leading the top-secret mission that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, told the House Armed Services Committee that he would direct more resources to theater special operations commands, citing the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines as an example.

“One of the areas where I intend to put a lot of emphasis is building up the theater special operations commands so they have the entire spectrum of capability that I think they’ll need for the future,” McRaven said.

He noted for instance that Predator drones used for intelligence and surveillance in support of troops on the ground could also be especially useful during natural disasters.

The Philippines welcomes the increased US military presence to counter growing Chinese belligerency in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. The islands are claimed in part or in whole by China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and Brunei.

Congress gave its nod to the transfer of a 2nd Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutter, the “Dallas” to the Philippine Navy later this year. The first ship delivered last year was rechristened the “Gregorio del Pilar” and now serves as the Philippine Navy flagship. It helps patrol the Spratly Islands.

At the strategic dialogue, both sides explored the feasibility of expanding both the size and scope of existing joint training exercises, especially “Balikatan”. But the Philippine defense department needs to flesh out many of the ideas and “fill in the blanks” according to one official.

The process is time consuming, officials explained, because anything that is delivered through diplomatic channels has to be run over to Camp Aguinaldo, partly because President Aquino has done away with the security Cabinet cluster in Malacanang.

The US and Philippines have Mutual Defense Treaty and an existing Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) regulates the movement and activities of US military forces in the Philippines.

The 2x2 ministerial meeting will gather US State Secretary Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta; and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

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