POSTSCRIPT / May 8, 2014 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Opinion Columnist

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Balikatan: Making US presence felt to China

INTEROPERABILITY: The American GIs you may see around are not yet the United States troops that Malacañang has allowed to come in increased number under a new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

They are participating in two weeks of Philippine-US “Balikatan” (Shoulder-to-Shoulder) military exercises to test their combat readiness and to improve their “interoperability” in responding to common threats.

Their cover is not the EDCA yet, but the older Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement. The latter is a sort of status of forces contract that mostly defines how US troops in the country should behave and how they expect to be treated.

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KEEPING DISTANCE: The exercise involving more than 5,000 allied soldiers will make US military presence felt by China. Beijing itself is refining the interoperability of its sea and air assets in tandem with fishermen in the “cabbage capture” of areas of neighboring countries.

Among other things, Balikatan will see US F-18 jet fighters going through bombing runs and GIs who are not assigned to PR-humanitarian missions in disaster areas in Eastern Visayas and Bicol having maneuvers and live-fire drills.

But while the Chinese and the Americans can watch each other electronically from a distance, both are careful to avoid eyeball-to-eyeball situations in disputed areas.

In Pampanga, Tarlac, Nueva Ecija as well as in Zambales and Palawan, focus is on maritime security and maritime awareness training. This will test the newly installed shore watch system, assuming intruders cooperate by moving to within range of the instruments.

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READYING SUBIC: In Olongapo City, Willie Capulong (trustee of the Capampangan in Media Inc.) reports that there are no visible EDCA preparations in the former Subic Bay naval base and the liberty town, a favorite stop of the US Seventh Fleet.

This is understandable because the defense and security boards of the two countries still have to meet and agree on the implementing details of the 10-day-old EDCA, assuming it will hurdle the constitutionality test before the Supreme Court.

Willie reports that the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority chaired by Administrator Roberto Garcia is keenly awaiting the release of the funding for the rehabilitation of the Subic piers Alava, Riviera and Bravo. The replacement of the port fenders will cost around $2 million.

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NAVY MOVEMENTS: As for Cubi Point, now the Subic Bay International Airport, the SBMA board has approved the use of the former FedEx covered hangar and a portion of the SBIA complex as tarmac of the 12 FA50 fighter jets to be acquired from Korea by the air force.

The air force will build its headquarters and barracks at the former FedEx hangar. Visiting US Navy jets will be allowed to park at the back portion of the SBIA, according to Willie.

The PhilNavy frigates BRPs Gregorio del Pilar and Ramon Alcaraz are temporarily home ported at Subic, but Willie reports that once the Oyster Bay naval base of the PhilNavy in Palawan is ready, both warships will be transferred there.

This will move them closer to the contested areas of the Ayungin shoal and the Spratly islands some of which have thriving Filipino barangays.

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LIBERTY TOWN: Olongapo Mayor Rolen Paulino welcomes the return and frequent visit to the former liberty area of US sailors, noting the general attitude is to treat the visitors more like tourists, with their security as a top concern.

The fact that the US Navy has been generous with its assistance and donations to the local community has helped improve relations between host and visitors.

The same sentiment was voiced by SBMA chair Garcia, pointing out that the enhanced presence of the US military will boost tourism and improve the business climate. He said it is safe to say that 99 percent of residents, business group and workers are for EDCA.

Big beneficiaries are hotel and restaurant owners, as well as the relatives of Pinoys serving on board US Navy ships on R&R (rest and recreation) calls.

The SBMA Law Enforcement Department under retired police general Orlando Madella gave assurance that it is ready and able to protect visitors of whatever nationality.

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CLARK QUIET: Over at Clark Freeport in Pampanga, former home base of the US 13th Air Force and the largest American military installation outside the continental US, there is also no visible preparation for the return of the Americans.

One question being asked is how US aircraft, including jet fighters and possibly bombers, would share the 2,300 hectares of the airport complex featuring a 3.2-kilometer parallel runway – and if their operations will not hamper commercial aviation and stunt economic growth.

This comes with the observation that Malacañang does not show enthusiasm for developing Clark as the twin key international gateway together with the old Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Pasay City.

(A strategic location still not being prominently mentioned is the General Santos International Airport built in 1993 through $47.6-million grant from the US. With its 3.2-kilometer airstrip on a 600-hectare elevated area, it is the biggest in Mindanao.)

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HEALTHY BALANCE: Fears have been expressed that military activities on Clark may hamper the full development of the freeport as a productive haven for locators representing a healthy cross-section of all types of manufacturing and service firms.

Local businessman Ruperto Cruz, founder of the Pinoy Gumising Ka Movement that pushed for Clark’s evolving into the country’s premier international airport after the US military withdrawal in 1991, may have summed up local sentiment when he said:

“There’s nothing basically wrong with our American friends coming back to contribute to the balanced growth of our community. Clark should be open to them as long as their activities dovetail with our development plans.”

My own view as a long-time observer in the region is that if a referendum were to be held in Central Luzon as suggested in the Constitution as an optional step, the EDCA will win overwhelmingly.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 8, 2014)

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