President Obama is set to tour the Asia Pacific starting April 23 to strengthen military alliances and promote the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) in line with the U.S. “Pivot to Asia” strategy.
Zoom in Korea spoke with progressive activists in three of the countries Obama is set to visit – Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines – about what’s on the agenda for his upcoming trip and how progressive movements in Asia Pacific are preparing for his visit. This is part 1 of a 3-part series.
To kick off the 3-part series, Zoom in Korea spoke with Renato (Nato) Reyes, Jr. – the Secretary General of the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) or New Patriotic Alliance in the Philippines – an umbrella organization of various sectors, including workers, peasants, women, youth, indigenous peoples, professionals, artists, and church people. In addition to working full-time for BAYAN, Nato occasionally performs music.
What is on the agenda for Obama’s upcoming visit to the Philippines?
We’re very concerned about the visit. There have been very important developments in the last few days regarding a defense agreement between the Philippine government and the U.S. government to allow the U.S. government de facto basing access in the country. The negotiations have entered their eighth round and it’s being rushed in time for Obama’s visit at the end of April. They want the signing to take place during his visit to maximize the photo-ops and have a big event affirming the so-called Philippine-U.S. partnership and Philippine support for the U.S. strategic military pivot. A cause for great concern for us is that the details of the agreement have largely been kept secret by both governments. It’s being negotiated as an executive agreement so the public is being kept out of the process. We have no idea what the details are. The only time we will know what the details are is when they sign it in the presence of Obama. Constitutionally it will raise a lot of questions. We do know [the agreement will allow the U.S. military to] put up new structures; they’re going to be allowed to preposition weapons and new equipment in the Philippines, and they’re going to increase the number of troops that are coming in and out of the country.
So it’s similar to the Visiting Force Agreement (VFA) in that it allows the United States to bypass the Philippines constitution and the Senate to increase its troop presence?
It’s actually broader than the VFA since it deals not just with troops but also facilities. The U.S. can start setting up facilities within Philippine facilities. And they would also be allowed the prepositioning of weapons – that means weapons of mass destruction, drones, etc.
How does this not violate the Philippine constitution?
It will definitely violate the constitution. Our constitution is very clear that there cannot be a basing agreement unless it’s ratified through a treaty by both countries. It has to go through a very rigorous process. But that’s not the case here. This agreement has been fast-tracked. [The process] has been very secret and being rushed in time for the state visit.
So it hasn’t gone through any parliamentary process?
No it hasn’t. The negotiators are not obliged to subject the proceedings to congressional oversight. The congressmen are quite busy with other things, so only a few lawmakers are actually insisting that the whole deal go through senate ratification. As far as the negotiators are concerned, it’s practically a done deal. They’re just working out some details and they’re discussing what they call humanitarian assistance and disaster response in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan and all the things that the United States did supposedly to help the victims. They’re dangling this so-called humanitarian assistance as another incentive for allowing greater U.S. troop presence in the country.
What is the current number of U.S. troops in the Philippines?
At any given time, there are always, at minimum, 600 U.S. special forces based in Mindanao in southern Philippines, and they’ve been there since 2002. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, they opened a second front [of the War on Terror] in Mindanao, and they’ve been there for the last 12 years on a permanent basis. During military exercises [the number increases]. For example one month from now, they’re planning to send 2500 U.S. troops to join military exercises here. Then there are the frequent, monthly port-calls by U.S. warships and submarines, which also ensure that there will always be a certain number of troops based in the country throughout the year.
Who pays for the cost of maintaining these troops?
When it comes to the facilities – for example the facility in Mindanao in southern Philippines – there’s some kind of congressional appropriation for that. When they start putting up facilities within Philippine camps, it shifts the burden of paying for these bases to the host country. But [the cost] is not just in monetary terms. We also shoulder the burden of environmental degradation, possible toxic waste, and other social costs that arise form hosting U.S. troops. We haven’t figured out the monetary equivalent of that but it’s quite huge since the United States has left a lot of toxic waste in former bases in Clark and Subic.
There’s a new base being constructed near the Spratly Islands. What’s the base for and what’s happening with the construction?
The base in Oyster Bay is very similar to [the naval base being constructed on] Jeju Island. Supposedly it’s a base that is being built by the host country, in other words a Philippine base. But we don’t have that many ships that can go that far out into the sea. We only have two ships that are most likely going to use that facility. So it begs the question – who really stands to benefit from the port? What we believe is that the Oyster Bay facility, similar to Jeju, is being constructed to host American warships near the disputed territories, the Spratlys, and allow the United States a base to project its power in that region to counter China. This is a big problem considering that the last U.S. warship that traveled through that part in Palawan ran aground in a reef and destroyed a UN world heritage site. So the hosting of those ships will also come with a huge environmental cost.
What is your response to the U.S. argument that its presence in the region counters the so-called China threat?
That’s actually a big issue here right now – something we’re trying to confront head on, since a lot of people are saying we shouldn’t be protesting against the United States, that they’re our friends and they’re going to help us against China. But the truth is the U.S. government has no real intention of helping the Philippines in its territorial claims against China. The United States has not taken sides in the territorial dispute and does not have any automatic obligation to support the Philippine government if the Philippines is attacked in open seas. Considering the United States has huge economic interests in China and owes China some 1.28 trillion dollars – a staggering amount – it’s not in the best U.S. interest to go to war against China at this time.
Also there’s really no empirical data or evidence to support the claim that having U.S. troops and military exercises on a constant basis will actually modernize the [Philippine] armed forces. The United States is just trying to exploit the conflict in order to justify a strong presence here. They can’t really use the “War on Terror” [as justification] when it comes to the Spratlys, so they have to find another reason to justify its presence in the region.
Of course the China threat is real. It’s a problem that Filipinos have to confront, but we can’t confront it effectively under the auspices of the United States or if we’re dictated on by another foreign power. It’s like asking a bully to defend us from another bully. It’s not in our best interest to be in the middle of two superpowers trying to outdo each other in the region. We have to pursue our claims against China without any form of U.S. intervention and without having U.S. troops in the Philippines because that will only exacerbate the situation.
Will the TPPA also be part of the talks when Obama visits?
It’s quite interesting. We’re not yet a member of the TPPA. For the longest time they’ve been saying the Philippines cannot join the TPPA because [the Philippines] has restrictions on foreign investments explicitly stated in its constitution. So to join the TPPA, we would have to change and remove all those restrictions on foreign investments and foreign ownership of land, utilities, and other vital industries. So what’s happening right now in the Philippine congress is that they’re actually starting the process of changing the constitution, and it’s quite interesting that it’s happening at the same time before Obama is set to visit. There’s been a strong lobby from the U.S. Trade Representative and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the Philippines to do just that – remove restrictions and pave the way for the Philippines joining the TPPA.
If the Philippines joins the TPPA and it passes, what is its likely impact on the Philippines?
We are on the losing end, considering that we are so backward economically. We don’t have any heavy industries. We’re mostly in manufacturing, extractive mining, agribusiness exports, and low value added production, so we will be mined for our cheap labor and natural resources. That’s not really going to translate into building our own domestic capacity or economy. We dread the idea that foreign companies are going to be allowed to own 100% of the land in the Philippines. The big mining companies will benefit from that. [There will be] 100% foreign control over utilities, like power and even water. It will basically be a recolonization of the Philippines.
What actions are you planning in time for Obama’s visit?
We’re planning both local and internationally-coordinated actions in the coming weeks. We’re planning actions on April 23. [Based on] what we know, that will be the time that Obama lands in Japan and that signals the start of his trip. The other details are being kept from the media so [we’re] not quite sure when he goes to South Korea or Malaysia. We guess that he will arrive in the Philippines on the 27th or the 28th. But whenever it may be, we’re ready for that.
We’re also supporting the call by the ILPS – the International League of Peoples’ Struggles – for internationally-coordinated protests. We support the efforts of our friends in the United States who are calling for April 25 as a date for coordinated protests. We also talked to our friends in Japan and South Korea and mass actions are also being readied there. So Obama will face a lot of opposition the moment he lands in Asia.
The Philippines has been a neo-colony of the United States for a long time. The mainstream media will give Obama a rock star welcome – a big deal about “friendship,” “enduring relations,” the “War on Terror” and all that. We plan to go all out to point out the history of unequal relationship between the Philippines and the United States. It’s not just about Obama’s visit. it will be a long-term campaign to fight against U.S. intervention in our country and finally get rid of U.S. bases.
Go to Part 2 – Interview with Ju Jejun, Policy Director of Korean Alliance of People’s Movements; and Oh Hye-ran, former Secretary General of Solidarity for Peace and Reunification of Korea
Go to Part 3 – Interview with Yukiko Nagaya, member of the Japan branch of the Asia Wide Campaign against U.S.-Japanese Domination and Aggression of Asia; and Keisuke Fuse, Director of the International Bureau of Japan’s National Confederation of Trade Unions Zenroren