Wednesday, March 20, 2013


A top Pentagon official discussed with Philippine leaders the mechanics of deploying more American troops in the country as part of the United States “rebalance” in Asia.

US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter was the most senior member of newly appointed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s team to visit Manila this year. The Philippines was part of an Asian swing that also took him to treaty allies Japan and South Korea, and Indonesia.

He harped on the US-Philippine security alliance, reiterating the Obama administration’s commitment to help the Philippine military modernize its outdated weapons.

In talks with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, he addressed concerns about the “sequester” that cuts into the Pentagon budget; the “rotation” of additional American forces under an expanded schedule of “Balikatan” joint training exercises; the emerging “security architecture” in Southeast Asia, especially amid growing fears of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea; as well as continuing cooperation in the war against Islamic terror groups, among others.

The Aquino administration earlier welcomed the deployment of additional US troops in the Philippines, notwithstanding protests from the Left. The Philippines and US have both a mutual defense pact and a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that govern the operations and conduct of US forces in the country.

The US has provided the Philippine Navy with two all-weather patrol ships, with a third being negotiated, that has vastly expanded its footprint in the South China Sea. It’s also financed the construction of an electronic Coast Watch system – a string of radars and sensors in southern Mindanao – that’s slowly being expanded to also look west towards the South China Sea. 

At the same time, the Philippines is seeking fighter jets, maritime patrol planes and fast attack boats from the US and other possible suppliers.

“We had a good discussion on intensifying our defense cooperation and the current challenges in the region,” Del Rosario said. “Dr. Carter reiterated the commitment of the US to work with us and support our efforts to strengthen our military and its ability to defend our country.”

He added, “This increased rotational presence will be crucial in allowing us to maximize our own investment in our defense.”

In Japan, Carter met with top defense officials to discuss the expansion of the US missile defense system, in the face of increasing threats from North Korea, but also that nation’s own headaches with China over a territorial dispute in the East China Sea and the re-location of the US Marines base in Futenma, Okinawa.

That move is widely reported to affect US plans to deploy forces in the Philippines, as the Marines are being asked to occupy a smaller, more isolated area of the island. According to some accounts, most assets will be pulled back to Guam but some may be re-positioned to Australia and the Philippines.

The US and Australia agreed in 2011 for the posting of up to 2,500 US Marines in Darwin. For the Philippines, they will rely heavily on their former naval base at Subic Bay, Zambales where a subsidiary of American shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls Industries recently bought into South Korea’s Hanjin Heavy Industries (Philippines) to provide maintenance, repair and logistics services to the US Navy.

The website said the US also plans to forward-deploy supplies for disaster relief and humanitarian assistance at the Subic Bay International Airport at Cubi Point, Zambales.

That appears to be acknowledgement of the Philippine’s strategic value – demonstrating it has something that another US logistic hub in the region (Singapore) does not – a world-class port with lot of available space.

Carter, who revealed he had great affection for President Aquino’s father – the martyred Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. – describing him a “greatadvisor and mentor to students” at the MIT in Boston when  he was studying there, stressed that America had “deep and abiding security roots” in the Philippines.

The US and Philippines have had several recent senior-level engagements, including meetings between Presidents Obama and Aquino, and a historic “two-plus-two” meeting in Washington, DC last April.

“All of that has facilitated real progress across an array of issues not just on defense but on foreign policy,” Carter explained, “our main goal is to keep the momentum going.”

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