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Leaders Urge Philippine Passage of Visiting Forces Pact

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

MANILA, Philippines, Aug. 10, 1998 – Philippine ratification of a new visiting forces agreement will strengthen U.S.-Philippine relations that were weakened with the closing of several military bases here in 1992, according to defense officials of both countries.

Visiting forces agreements provide guidelines for the conduct of U.S. service members while operating in the host country. They provide service members various rights, privileges and legal protections, and they spell out the obligations of both the U.S. and host-nation governments.

The absence of an agreement exposes both U.S. service members and the countries they visit to potential abuses and legal difficulties. Since no such agreement exists between the United States and the Philippines, DoD has significantly curtailed its military activities here.

U.S. forces abandoned Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base after the Philippine government voted not to renew a basing agreement in 1992. U.S. and Philippine defense leaders hammered out an agreement in January that would allow large military exercises, naval port calls and joint training.

Ironically, Philippine President Joseph Estrada and National Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado both voted against U.S. bases in 1992 but now strongly support the new agreement. However, the agreement won't take effect until the Philippine senate ratifies it with a two-thirds majority approval. That vote is expected in November or December following an open national debate.

Defense Secretary William Cohen lauds the move toward a new agreement, but also made it clear during his Aug. 2 visit to Manila that the United States has no plans or desires to establish a semi-permanent military presence here.

"We're not looking for bases," Cohen told reporters traveling with him. Rather, DoD wants to conduct training and exercises with Filipino troops just as it does with the services of other Asia- Pacific nations, the secretary said.

The new agreement would reaffirm obligations established under a U.S.-Philippine mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 that requires the United States to help defend the Philippines should it be attacked. It provides legal protections for DoD personnel serving here and for their Philippine hosts. It requires U.S. service members to respect Philippine laws and to abstain from activities inconsistent with the spirit of the agreement.

The Philippine government would be obligated to facilitate the admission and departure of U.S. service members from Philippine soil and to eliminate restrictive visa controls. All that U.S. personnel normally would have to display for entry is a military identification card and possibly a passport.

Criminal jurisdiction would be based on the laws of both countries. The Philippines would have jurisdiction if DoD personnel are accused of violating Philippine law. Similarly, the United States would preside over criminal investigations and prosecutions of service members violating U.S. laws, including the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The agreement spells out who has jurisdiction when U.S. and Philippine laws overlap.

The agreement generally would allow the United States to retain custody of service members accused of breaking Philippine laws and requires the Philippines to prosecute in a speedy manner. If convicted and sentenced to confinement, prisoners can be incarcerated only in facilities the United States approves, and they are entitled to visitation and assistance throughout their confinement.

Service members would also be allowed to bring with them sufficient personal baggage and other personal property to and from the Philippines duty-free. Similarly, the U.S. government would not be charged duties, port fees and other charges associated with the coming and going of ships and aircraft.

Both governments would agree to waive claims against each other for the damage, loss or destruction of property or for the death or injury of their military and civilian personnel during port calls, joint training and exercises. The agreement would open Philippine ports to more frequent visits by U.S. naval vessels. The most recent port call was in September 1996.

The agreement would allow stronger military ties that would help promote regional stability and be beneficial to both countries, Cohen said. "It is similar to what we have with all the other countries in the region, and it conveys a very strong support for our presence throughout the region as a stabilizing force," he added.

The absence of an agreement doesn't negate the mutual defense treaty, Cohen said, but it does tend to isolate the Philippines, because the United States has strong military ties with most other countries in the region. Without an agreement, he said, the Philippines will have to do the best it can to meet its own needs.

The defense secretaries met Aug. 2 at Camp Aguinaldo, the national defense headquarters. Mercado said the absence of an agreement is hurting the Philippines.

"Military exercises between the United States and the Philippines have been suspended, largely because of this lack of an agreement," Mercado said. A vote against the agreement "will not affect the alliance, but it will affect our capability," he said.

"We have not been able to pursue our modernization program largely because of the current [Asia-wide] financial crisis," Mercado said. "If you cannot purchase equipment, and you cannot exercise, that will directly impair your ability to respond to any emergency or need that may arise."

"The Philippines and the United States have been partners in war and peace for many decades," Cohen said. "What we want is an expanded, mutually beneficial security relationship." He expressed guarded optimism about the ratification vote.

"[Mercado] and I both understand that you have to work very hard on issues such as this," he said. "Based on his strong leadership, however, and that of [Estrada], the prospects for approval are very good."

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