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Philippine Public Divided on Increased US Military Visits

  • Simone Orendain

FILE - Protesters hold placards as they demonstrate against the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and the Philippines in front of the military headquarters in Quezon city, metro Manila, Aug. 15, 2013.

FILE - Protesters hold placards as they demonstrate against the ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and the Philippines in front of the military headquarters in Quezon city, metro Manila, Aug. 15, 2013.

Many in the Philippines, including the country’s president, have said they expect a deal to be reached soon between their government and the United States that would see more American troops visiting the Philippines. With a strong push for the proposal from many sides, ordinary Filipinos are split on whether more U.S. troops in the country is a positive.

Michael Ferros said that he is in favor of having more U.S. troops in the Philippines. The sales executive in Manila’s business district said “it’s because of China.”

“If there’s the U.S. troop[s] here, I think they will not penetrate Philippines. Like before when U.S. [was] in Subic they could not bully other Asian countries,” said Ferros.

Ferros pointed out that the U.S. has “the most capable Navy” in the world and they should have their old base back. Subic is situated off the South China Sea.

Two other respondents agreed with Ferros out of a dozen who consented to talk to VOA. Two thirds of the respondents in the informal survey said the U.S. should visit more often.

The U.S. had several bases in the Philippines for nearly a century, until nationalistic sentiment sent them packing in 1992. But since 2001, U.S. troops have returned on a rotational basis under a visiting forces agreement. The U.S. military says that on any given rotation, there are more than 400 troops in the country’s south.

Philippine negotiators have made clear any new agreement to have more U.S. troops visit would adhere to the Philippine Constitution, which does not allow outside military installations. Late last year the Philippine Defense secretary said they also wanted full access to planned temporary facilities of the U.S.

Ramon Casiple with the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila said while there is widespread support for the proposal, the question of access has been a sticking point in negotiations.

“The Philippines is wary about granting such exclusive control. The problems with American bases before, remember, was the treatment of civilians and crime-related incidents… which the U.S. is not particularly keen on being passed through the Philippines side,” said Casiple.

Facing a territorial dispute with China, the Philippines with a severely lacking military wants to have a “minimum credible defense posture.” To do this, Manila says, it needs to stand alongside the U.S., which is a mutual defense treaty ally.

The U.S. is looking to expand its reach in the Asia-Pacific region where China’s influence has grown significantly. It wants more frequent military visits to the Philippines where it can dock ships, land planes and have equipment ready for use.

The Philippines and China are squabbling over tiny islands in the South China Sea, which the Philippines claims are part of its 370 kilometer exclusive economic zone. In recent years, the country has been kept on the periphery of at least three outcroppings as China stepped up patrols in the waters it claims. China's claim is based primarily on ancient maps.

Manila has filed a case against Beijing with a United Nations arbitration tribunal, calling China’s claim excessive. Beijing does not recognize the filing.

Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam also have stakes in the resource rich sea.

However, even if there is a perception that China poses a threat, not everyone wants the U.S. military to come around more.

Roderick Caceres, a tour guide at a Manila Bay park, said the Americans are simply using the Philippines.

Caceres said U.S. troops come often for military exercises, yet China was able to take some islands. "So China is not afraid of them,” he said.

Romnick Iglesias, an unemployed teacher, said the Philippine military could benefit from more training with U.S. troops, but disagreed that the Philippines needs outside help to deal with China.

“It’s advisable to have negotiations only, because it’s just between the Philippines and China,” said Iglesias.

Another respondent also said bilateral dialogue was the most peaceful option.

Congressman Walden Bello supports the arbitration case, and said it shows China does “not have a leg to stand on.” But he has consistently opposed having more American troops in the country.

“The dynamics of your polity and your society and your economy becomes subject to the strategy of the superpower. And that’s basically what’s going to happen,” said Bello.

Bello said that even if the agreement does not need Congressional approval, some lawmakers plan to scrutinize it and raise concerns.

Manila negotiators said the next meeting with their Washington counterparts is scheduled for next month.