Since the closure of its military bases in the country in 1991, the United States has incrementally regained, transformed, and deepened its military presence and intervention in the Philippines. The manner in which the United States has attempted to re-establish basing in the Philippines illustrates its attempts to radically overhaul its global offensive capabilities to become more agile and efficient while overcoming mounting domestic opposition to its presence around the world.
The objectives with which the United States has sought to achieve this in the Philippines — a country that is firmly within what U.S. analysts and strategists call "the dragon’s lair" — point to the emerging U.S. strategy toward what it has officially identified as the one country with "the greatest potential to compete with the United States" — China. In this strategy, the Philippines, by virtue both of its location as well as its political disposition towards the United States relative to its neighbors, plays a crucial role.
Basing without Bases
After George W. Bush came to power, the United States began to attempt in earnest to implement what its proponents bill as the most comprehensive reconfiguration of its global military presence since World War II. The underlying rationale is clear: the positioning and forms of U.S. military bases of the past — built as they were for the Cold War — no longer suffice for the present. The U.S. overseas basing must therefore be transformed so as to enable the U.S. military to become leaner and meaner, quicker and more agile.
In the Philippines, as in a growing number of places around the world, the one persistent constraint for both the U.S. and Philippine governments, however, has been the long-standing domestic sensitivity to U.S. bases in the country. This opposition was actually an important — if not the decisive — factor in the decision to close the bases in 1991 and in the adoption in the post-Marcos 1987 constitution of provisions banning foreign military bases in the country.
As it has embarked on the project of transforming its global presence, the United States has also sought to adapt to and undermine domestic opposition to its bases. In this, the U.S. military’s reconceptualization of its global military presence — no longer as merely a collection of physical structures but as a global "posture" — is illuminating. By posture, explained U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Douglas J. Feith, "We are not talking only about basing, we’re talking about the ability of our forces to operate when and where they are needed."
Thus, recognizing that the local political situation is not yet ripe for the re-establishment of the kind of large military bases that the United States once had in the Philippines, the United States has instead moved forward to achieve this ability in various other ways.
The United States has been deploying a growing number of its troops, ships, and equipment all over the Philippines ostensibly for training exercises, humanitarian and engineering projects, and other missions. In 2006 alone, up to 37 military exercises were scheduled — up from around 24 in the preceding years. As many as 6,000 U.S. troops are involved, depending on the exercise.
Though packaged as on-and-off temporary programs to train U.S. and Filipino troops, such exercises are seen as an alternative way for the U.S. military to secure access to the Philippines. "The habitual relationships built through exercises and training," former U.S. Pacific Command head Admiral Thomas Fargo noted in March 2003, "is our biggest guarantor of access in time of need." He continued:"Access over time can develop into habitual use of certain facilities by deployed U.S. forces with the eventual goal of being guaranteed use in a crisis, or permission to preposition logistics stocks and other critical material in strategic forward locations."
As U.S. troops come and go in rotation for frequent and regular exercises, their presence — when taken together — makes up a formidable forward presence that brings them closer to areas of possible action without need for huge infrastructure to support them and without inciting a lot of public attention and opposition. As the U.S. National Defense Strategy states, "Our posture also includes the many military activities in which we engage around the world. This means not only our physical presence in key regions, but also our training, exercises, and operations."
Along with troops, an increasing number of ships have also been entering the country’s territorial waters and docking at various ports with growing frequency. Such ship visits are also seen as ways to establish presence. As the U.S. Congressional Budget Office has pointed out, "[T]he Navy counts those ships as providing overseas presence full time, even when they are training or simply tied up at the pier."
Apart from the troop deployments and ship visits, the United States has also been constructing an increasing number of structures and facilities that could be useful for the U.S. military when the contingency arises — while at the same time allowing it to buy political support from the national and local governments. In various parts of the country, especially in the southern regions of Mindanao, the United States has been engaged in a flurry of construction activities, building or renovating airports, piers, wharves, roads and other infrastructure.
In General Santos City, for example, the United States constructed a deep-water port and one of the most modern airports in the country, connected to each other by one of the country’s best roads. Why the United States was so intent on financing and building this modern airport in a small city where relatively few passenger or cargo planes land could not be explained if not for its potential military use. In Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, where US troops routinely go for exercises, the airport has been renovated and its runway strengthened to carry the weight of C-130 planes. In Sulu, the United States is renovating the airport, upgrading roads, and building ports that can berth huge ships.
All this is consistent with a U.S. Air Force (USAF)-funded study which recommended having more deployments to have more infrastructure. By increasing deployments, notes the study, the United States can get into arrangements that "include measures to tailor local infrastructure to USAF operations by extending runways, improving air traffic control facilities, repairing parking aprons and the like."
Cooperative Security Locations
The United States is also establishing in the Philippines a new category of military installations it calls "Cooperative Security Locations" (CSLs).
As part of the innovations introduced in the ongoing revamping of the global U.S. network of bases, CSLs refer to facilities owned either by host-governments or even by private companies that are to be made available for use by the U.S. military as needed. According to the Pentagon, these CSLs are to be run and maintained by either host governments or private contractors and are as useful for prepositioning logistics support or as venues for joint operations with host militaries. While intended to be small so as not to attract attention, they could be expanded to become larger bases when necessary.
In August 2005, the U.S. Overseas Basing Commission, the official commission tasked to review U.S. basing, categorically identified the Philippines as one of the countries where such CSLs are being developed by the United States in the region. The Philippine government, however, has refused to disclose the locations and other details about these CSLs.
Base Services without Basing
The United States has obliged the Philippines to provide it with a broad range of locally provided services that would enable it to launch and sustain operations from the Philippines when necessary.
In November 2002, the United States and Philippine governments signed the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), which researchers with the U.S. Congressional Research Service describe as "allowing the United States to use the Philippines as a supply base for military operations throughout the region."
The MLSA obliges the Philippine government to provide the United States with logistical supplies, support and services during exercises, training, operations, and other U.S. military deployments. These supplies include food, water, petroleum, oils, clothing, ammunition, spare parts and components, billeting, transportation, communication, medical services, operation support, training services, repair and maintenance, storage services, and port services. "Construction and use of temporary structures" is also covered.
In other words, through the MLSA, the United States has secured for itself the services that it would normally provide itself inside a large permanent base but without constructing and retaining large permanent bases — and without incurring the costs and the political problems that such bases pose.
Forward Operating Base
Finally, the United States has succeeded in indefinitely stationing a US military unit in the country. Since 2002, a unit now called the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTFP) has been deployed to the southern Philippines. Contrary to the US and Philippine governments efforts to present the troops belonging to the unit as part of temporary training exercises, this unit has maintained its presence in the country continuously for the last six years. With the Philippine government not setting an exit date, it will continue to be based in the Philippines for the long haul.
The unit, which is composed of about 100-500 mostly Special Forces troops, is headquartered inside a Philippine military camp in Zamboanga City, but its "area of operations," according to a U.S. military publication, spans 8,000 square miles, covering the entire island of Mindanao and its surrounding islands and seas. With various military facilities now being constructed for their use, members of the unit refer to their bases in Mindanao as "forward operating base-11" and "advanced operating base-921."
Though U.S. and Philippine government officials have consistently claimed that the unit is not involved in actual combat, U.S. troops themselves describe their mission as "unconventional warfare" and "counter-insurgency" operations in the country. They have confirmed that they join Filipino troops on patrol, provide them with intelligence, and assist in various aspects of their operation. Eyewitnesses claim to have seen them in the vicinity of operations. Most recently, U.S. troops have been accused of joining Filipino soldiers when they perpetrated what was described as a massacre of innocent civilians in Sulu.
In terms of profile and mission, the JSOTF-P is similar to the Combined Joint Task Force — Horn of Africa (CJTF-Horn of Africa) — which was established in Djibouti in eastern Africa in 2003, also composed mostly of Special Forces, and which has been described as the "model for future US military operations."
Greatest Potential Competitor
Taken together — the increasing troop deployments, the construction of more and more infrastructure to guarantee U.S. military mobility, the designation of facilities as "cooperative security locations" to be used by the U.S. military when needed, the assurance of support services in case of operations, and the indefinite stationing of US troops in the country — have significantly improved the U.S. ability to operate in and from the Philippines, thereby locking the country firmly within the U.S. global posture.
The determination to ensure and strengthen this ability cannot be adequately explained by the supposed threat posed by local or regional "terrorist" groups in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia. As brutal or as violent as the deeply splintered Abu Sayyaf Group has been in its operations, for example, the threat that its remaining 300 or so members pose to the United States is quite low and cannot explain the magnitude, the form, and locations of U.S. presence in the country. Not only doesn’t the Abu Sayyaf pose an existential threat to the US, neither does it affect US strategic interests or limit its freedom of action in country or beyond. Nuisance does not a national security threat make.
Rather, the U.S. military presence in the Philippines appears to be part of the U.S. drive toward global military dominance in general, and, in particular, of the emerging U.S. strategy towards China — the one power that has now been officially identified by the United States as posing the greatest challenge to its global supremacy. As indicated by the series of provocative pronouncements by US officials against China in the past years, the actual U.S. moves to encircle it with military bases and other forms of military presence, and its ongoing efforts to enlist various countries on its side and assemble a de facto anti-China coalition in Asia, U.S. military basing in the Philippines appears to be part of what its advocates have proposed as a strategy for preserving US lone-superpower status by preventing the rise of potential rivals.
Location, Location, Location
If such a strategy is indeed being put into action, the Philippines appear to be of crucial strategic importance. Since the late 1990s, a growing chorus of U.S. military strategists and foreign policy thinkers concerned with China’s rise have warned about the deficiencies in the U.S. military presence in Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. In their recommendations for addressing this, the Philippines has since been repeatedly explicitly singled out as among the countries in which the United States must move decisively to regain its presence. As various studies have concluded, in any possible face-off with China — whether in a long-drawn out competition or in an outright confrontation — the Philippines, by virtue of its location, can be pivotal.
At the same time, the United States does not have many other choices. Other countries in the vicinity of China are either geographically less than ideal, or else, have proven to be unwilling to consent to U.S. requests for basing or access. While Singapore, for example, has proven more accommodating to the United States than others, its small size is seen as limiting U.S. options. Indonesia and Malaysia, on the other hand, have not only openly castigated U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, they have also rejected U.S. demands to station in and operate from their countries. Even Thailand, which is a close US ally, has actually rejected U.S. overtures to be allowed to station ships in or to deploy troops to its territory. Regardless of their attitudes toward the United States, most countries in the region simply do not see China as a threat and have therefore refused to go along any strategy that could antagonize it.
Hence, the United States finds that it needs the Philippines more than ever. Not only is it ideally located geographically, its government has so far stood out among its neighbors for being far more willing to align itself with U.S. demands. But with China also aggressively courting Filipino leaders, this too could change. As the ensuing geopolitical competition heats up, the Philippines could tip the balance one way or the other.
Herbert Docena is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus (www.fpif.org) and a research associate at the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South. This article is a condensed version of Herbert Docena, "At the Door of All the East": The Philippines in United States Military Strategy (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South, 2007).