Caution raised: Don’t depend on US military

AT GROUND LEVEL By Satur C. Ocampo

“Let me state it publicly here and now, wala akong problema sa America (I have no problem with America)… We remain to be the best of friends with America.”

That’s what President Duterte said a day before flying to Vietnam Wednesday for his first face-to-face diplomatic engagement with US President Donald Trump at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit. The two heads of state will meet again in Manila next week at the 31st summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

He thus merely reaffirmed what he had earlier stated: all the previous vitriolic and vituperative accusations he had hurled at the United States as the country’s former colonizer-oppressor since the start of the 20th century were all “water under the bridge.” 

Brushed aside too were his threats to abrogate the unequal bilateral military treaties and agreements, such as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and its sequel, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), both supposedly within the scope of the 1951 US-RP Mutual Defense Treaty. In fact, he has already allowed, under the Edca, the American military to establish facilities inside six Philippine military bases wherein they will be exercising full control. 

Duterte made the statement in an off-the-cuff speech at the 67th anniversary of the Philippine Marine Corps in Fort Bonifacio.  He began his talk by expressing gratitude to the United States, as well as to China and Russia, for helping the Philippine security forces win the war against the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups in what has been billed as the “Marawi siege.”

The US, he pointed out, “render[ed] us the equipment”(air assets) while China and Russia provided more modern firearms and ammunitions which he said were needed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police to overcome their adversaries in a type of warfare entirely new to them.

The five-month war cost over a thousand lives and displaced 400,000 people. Daily aerial bombings (guided by US and Australian spy planes and drones) and ground artillery barrages flattened much of the Islamic city center and residential areas. Till today AFP troops remain in Marawi, doing mopping-up operations. 

Meantime, the martial law proclamation and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, which Duterte issued at the start of the Marawi siege and extended until the end of December in the whole of Mindanao, may possibly be extended further with the military warning that remnants of the Maute-Abu Sayyaf may foment trouble elsewhere in the island.

What may result from the Duterte-Trump talks in Da Nang (Vietnam) and in Manila we’ll know shortly. It’s not farfetched for Trump to press for larger US military presence in the country, under whatever program he may devise to replace Obama’s unimplemented “pivot to Asia” platform.

In this regard, we note a statement reportedly made to Trump by Admiral Harry B. Harris Jr., head of the US Pacific Command, during a briefing at the command’s headquarters on Nov. 6, before the US president embarked on his first official Asian trip. A US official quoted Harris, while showing on a wall map the deployment of US military forces, as having told Trump that the American military presence in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines was not a matter of charity.

“We are not there for them; we are there for us,” Harris reportedly said. The news report didn’t say what prompted him to say that, and what Trump said in response.  But given the latter’s predilection, most likely he fully agreed with his naval commander.

As though to backstop Harris’ statement, The New York Times published on Nov. 8 a front-page opinion piece, titled “South Korea and that iffy US alliance,” written by Se-Woong Koo, editor-in-chief of Korea Exposé. It exposes the injurious consequences of the military alliance between the two countries, under a mutual defense treaty signed in 1953, which has ensured an American military presence there to this day.

“Washington knows full well that stationing its soldiers in South Korean soil isn’t an act of charity,” says Koo.  “America offers protection, but only in return for influence over its lesser allies’ affairs.”

“Contrary to how South Korean conservatives and some Americans frame it,” he adds, “the protection, while something to be thankful for, has not been free.” He narrates the following conditions and incidents prejudicial to South Koreans that parallel our own experiences in the Philippines.

– The South Korean military dictatorship “coerced women into sex work for American soldiers” was the conclusion of an authoritative study by Katherine Moon, titled “Sex Among Allies: Military Prostitution in US-Korea Relations.” The women were forced to undergo testing for sexually transmitted diseases and treatment – ”all for the health and happiness” of the “protectors.”

– Under a Status of Forces Agreement, signed in 1966 and renewed twice, the US has been granted “nearly exclusive jurisdiction over its personnel, such that even high-profile offenses committed by American soldiers against South Korean citizens go unpunished.”

– More recently, the US has refused to take responsibility for its environmental degradation of its military base in central Seoul.  (About this, be reminded of Clark Air Base in Pampanga.)

– South Korean soldiers were deployed to support the American wars in Vietnam and Iraq; in Vietnam 5,000 of them died and many others were exposed to Agent Orange and other US-made, toxic chemical weapons. 

“But the biggest cost of the alliance has been the erosion of South Korea’s sovereign spirit,” Se-Woong Koo emphasizes.

“There is enormous support among South Koreans for the [US] military presence, and it isn’t simply a reflection of national goodwill toward America. It speaks volumes about just how much South Korea has become psychologically dependent on a foreign army as a potential barrier against North Korea, despite an annual defense budget amounting to about 2.7 percent of its GDP and a nearly 650,000 strong military.”

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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