China sparks rekindling of US-Philippine love affair

Philippine President Aquino (L) with US President Obama (R).

What a difference 20 years make. I still recall watching the Stars and Stripes being lowered for the last time at Subic Bay Naval Base in November 1992 - to the glee of Philippine nationalists and to the dismay of the Corazon Aquino government, reeling from the destruction wrought by the Mount Pinatubo eruption.

United States negotiator Richard Armitage had called me from Washington two years earlier, inquiring whether I thought the Philippine government would extend the leases on Subic and nearby Clark airbase, which US forces had used since the early 1900s.

It was not long after dawn and without giving it a lot of thought, I told the man who would later become President George W. Bush's deputy secretary of state that I was pretty sure Manila would go along with an extension. It wasn't one of my more insightful moments.

Pinatubo complicated matters, its heavy volcanic ash-fall wiping out Clark as an effective base and collapsing more than 150 buildings across Subic. But in the end, public opinion prevailed and the Americans were shown the door.

Fast forward to August 2013 and I'm reading a headline which says "US, Philippines Open Talks on Larger Troop Presence". It brings to mind legendary American baseball player Yogi Berra's now-famous quote: "It's deja vu all over again..."

It is not so much the passage of time that has altered the complexion of the love-hate relationship, but the growing influence of China as a maritime power and its less than subtle designs on the disputed Spratly Islands.

Philippine officials say giving US forces an increased "rotational" presence will help the country attain a minimum credible defence while it struggles to strengthen its own military, one of the weakest in ASEAN.

The presence of foreign forces has always been a sensitive issue in the former US colony, underscored by the Philippine Senate's landmark decision to shut Subic and Clark in September 1991.

After Pinatubo erupted, the US Air Force advised Mr Armitage that it had written off Clark and not to worry about trying to retain it. But the loss of Subic, a deep-water port with major ship-repair and munitions-storage facilities, was a major blow to the US 7th Fleet's operations.

While US warships have been calling at Subic over the past decade, the new talks offer the prospect of lengthier stays and a new manifestation of President Barack Obama's pivot to Asia policy after prolonged US engagement in the Middle East and South Asia.

The Philippine Constitution forbids foreign troops from being permanently based in the country, but a 1999 agreement with the US does allow for temporary visits. Since the 2001 terrorist attacks, "temporary" has quietly evolved into something a lot more flexible.

Indeed, for the past decade, Western Mindanao Command has played host to US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P), which has helped Philippine troops hunt down Abu Sayyaf militants across Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago.

Comprising army special forces, navy Seals, Marine special operations and air force commandos, the 500-strong JSOTF-P is credited with preventing Abu Sayyaf from growing into a dangerous Al-Qaeda offshoot.

But contingency plans for winding down the operation are still very much up in the air. As one source involved in the programme puts it: "The political considerations are more complex than the military ones."

The realignment of US forces in the Asia-Pacific already involves the rotation of 2,500 Marines through bases in northern Australia, the stationing of new littoral combat ships in Singapore and an US$8 billion (S$10 billion) expansion of air and naval facilities on Guam.

It is understood that the US is seeking unilateral access - dispensing with prior clearance for troop movements - to Philippine bases, similar to the agreement on Marines training in Australia. For all of China's bullying, that may not go down well in the Philippine Congress or with the public.

The US continues to insist it isn't trying to contain China, but it sure looks like that with US General Herbert Carlisle, chief of air operations in the Pacific, saying the air force will dramatically expand its presence in the region.

That will mean sending large numbers of new-generation F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II fighters and B-2 stealth bombers to Thailand, India, Singapore and Australia for exercises to improve interoperability and integration.

The jets will operate out of the Australian air force's Tindal base, south of Darwin, Singapore's Changi airbase, Nakhon Ratchasima in Thailand and possibly, Philippine bases at Cubi Point, adjoining Subic and Palawan, the closest large island to the Spratlys.

Gen Carlisle makes it clear that the air force is not planning on building large infrastructure in addition to the nine permanent bases it already has in Alaska, Guam, Japan and South Korea.

The fickle public mood in the Philippines is notoriously difficult to gauge, but some analysts believe China's belligerence means those in favour of a stronger US presence have gone from a significant minority to about 50-50.

The Philippine military is acquiring three decommissioned US Coast Guard cutters, two of which have already been delivered; and 12 F-50 jet fighters from Korea Aerospace Industries costing a total of US$440 million.

But with a defence budget of only US$1.9 billion, much of it going to personnel salaries and allowances, there are serious doubts the Philippines will ever be able to attain its own credible minimum defence capability.

Resting comfortably under the US defence umbrella may be one thing, but that has its limits too. US officials are known to have advised Manila to tone down the anti-Chinese rhetoric.

It goes a long way towards explaining why President Benigno Aquino's state of the nation address last month made no mention at all about the conflict with China on its western doorstep.

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