98aug06 – US hardsell can hurt ratification of VFA

POSTSCRIPT / August 6, 1998 / Thursday
 
US hardsell can hurt ratification of VFA
By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

fdp5NATIONALISTS, genuine and bogus, are again frothing in the mouth, screaming in the streets and in media against the Visiting Forces Agreement signed recently between the Philippines and the United States and submitted to the Senate for ratification.

The agreement is a variant of the usual piece of paper that the US signs with some allies formalizing the ground rules for American soldiers making port calls or participating in joint military exercises with the host country.

The big difference in the noisy opposition to the VFA is that President Estrada, one of the “dirty dozen” senators who killed the amended US-RP bases agreement in 1992, is now himself lobbying for its speedy approval by two-thirds vote of the 24-member Senate.

The issue then (in 1992) was sovereignty, Mr. Estrada said in explaining his change of heart, but now it is security. Whatever that Eraption means.

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PRESIDENT Estrada should have stopped at that cryptic explanation, to which nobody of consequence bothered to react anyway.

But he prattled on. Ever the charming host to visiting high-pressure salesmen — in the person of US State Secretary Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen — Mr. Estrada went overboard.

Trying to sound profound, he offered the analysis that we are too weak to defend ourselves, that the US will rush to our defense if we are attacked, but that the US will give us trouble (scrap the sugar quota and freeze assistance, for instance) if we do not ratify the VFA.

The watching world knows that our armed forces keep an arsenal of museum pieces, that 34 percent of our exports go to the US, and that a century of alleged independence has not really weaned us away from Uncle Sam.

But does our anxious President have to officially broadcast our mendicancy and dependency? That’s not the way to play high-stake poker with America.

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AN illustration of how both sides are bungling the presentation was the barring of senior Senator Aquilino “Nene” Pimentel from the Manila Hotel dinner to which senators were invited last Monday by Defense Secretary Orly Mercado to honor Cohen, his Pentagon counterpart.

Security men of Cohen stopped Pimentel at the door, probably thinking he was a waiter who just forgot his tray.

Cohen’s guard dogs had no business barking at Pimentel, whom Ninoy Aquino once said should one day be president. Cohen himself was just a dinner guest like Pimenel. And this was the Philippines.

And then, what was supposed to be a social function was turned into a sales blitz with the senators being badgered with pro-VFA arguments and their position being pried open even before the Senate officially takes up the matter.

If you ask this wizened observer of FilAm relations, I’d say the White House, State and the Pentagon could very well leave the ball with US Ambassador Thomas Hubbard. An old Manila hand, Hubbard knows his way around and has enough friends in the right places to do the job.

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ACTUALLY, the only contentious points in the VFA are the proper handling of US nuclear arms and criminal jurisdiction.

* On nukes, the Constitution bans nuclear weapons. The VFA is silent on this, on the unwritten assurance of the US that it will not bring in nuclear weapons anyway.

But at the same time, the US will not allow boarding and inspection for nuclear weapons. Inspection is to be entrusted to the ship captain(?), who in the first place is bound by the official policy of neither denying nor confirming the carrying of nukes on US war vessels.

We are expected to assume that before they enter Philippine waters, US warships will first go to Guam or some convenient US port and leave their nukes. President Estrada seems naïve enough to believe that.

* On criminal jurisdiction, our main worry is that some GI may just rape, maim or otherwise injure some native — and remain beyond the reach of Philippine courts by the simple expedience of his commander issuing a certification that the man was on official duty at the time.

That’s what it says in the VFA. When a crime punishable under Philippine laws is committed against a Filipino in the Philippines, the GI can still be sprung through a duty certificate and a promise that the US military will do something about it.

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IF there are onerous provisions, why is our supposedly nationalist President willing to break his other knee to have the VFA ratified?

Mr. Estrada himself has said why. We need the US to defend us and to help prop up the faltering economy. We need money. (That’s the same excuse, by the way, of prostitutes and girl friends of top Malacañang officials.)

It seems the President was made by his advisers and speech writers to paint himself into a corner when he declared in his State of the Nation address that the government is bankrupt and the economy is at the edge of the cliff.

Being in dire need, Mr. Estrada is now forced to grab the line being thrown him by, among other vested interests, the United States.

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GOING to the pragmatic bottom line, I’d say that while the VFA is not perfect, while we hate some of America’s abrasive ways, we could go ahead and approve the agreement without much damage to us.

It is high time we normalized our historic relations, which have been strained since we (and Pinatubo) chased them out of their bases that we euphemistically called facilities.

Contrary to widespread misconception, the VFA will not mean the putting up, again, of US bases. My impression is that they just want facilitation of movement when their boys come over for rest and recreation (or procreation, whatever). Fair enough.

If our impressions and assumptions in good faith are proved wrong, we can always serve a notice of termination, which takes effect 180 days later.

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