POSTSCRIPT / November 27, 2014 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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SolGen: Phl not sure of US defense shield

NO GUARANTEE: It was good that the government told the people the truth that there is no guarantee under the Phl-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that the United States will defend the Philippines from aggression or take its side in territorial disputes.

The statement is timely, because many Filipinos are still under the star-spangled illusion that America will defend them from all invaders and interlopers.

Speaking for the government, Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, said this during oral arguments Tuesday at the Supreme Court. “I cannot predict what the United States will do,” he said in answer to Associate Justice Antonio Carpio who asked if EDCA had such US guarantee.

Actually the main point before the tribunal is whether EDCA is constitutional, not whether the US would defend its former colony. But it was good that the issue of mutual defense was brought up and somewhat clarified.

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NO INSTANT REACTION: A notch lower than the 1951 Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty, EDCA is an executive agreement for the revolving-door presence of US forces operating with Filipino troops from designated Philippine bases or facilities.

If the Philippines were subjected to an armed attack, it is the older Mutual Defense Treaty, not EDCA, that applies.

But even the MDT does not guarantee instant retaliation by the US if the Philippines or its forces were subjected to an armed attack.

Note the adjective “armed.” If, for instance, a Philippine Navy ship were grazed or shot with water cannons by an obviously aggressive Chinese warship, a reluctant US is not likely to consider the incident an armed attack requiring instant retaliation.

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BETTER THAN CRUMBS?: Under the MDT, the US has reserved the option – if war or warlike operations were a possibility — to first go through the usual congressional processes. No such thing as automatic or reflex retaliation.

It would be a different scenario if the Chinese or any aggressor fired, say, missiles and hit American forces or military craft. In this case, with or without the MDT, the mighty US can be expected to hit back in kind.

To many Filipinos, I dare say, this contingent MDT is better than crumbs. As for EDCA, Solgen Hilbay told the SC that the agreement has among its limited objectives the enhancing of the country’s facilities that can be used for training by soldiers of the two allies.

Hilbay said: “What we are saying is that (EDCA) helps improve barracks, facilities, ports, those matters pertaining to training exercises in the Philippines.”

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IT’S WHAT SC SAYS: This observer has no objection to conditional US military presence at this time when we need it.

I expect the SC to declare EDCA as “not unconstitutional”, as it was years ago when the court affirmed that another Phl-US pact, the Visiting Forces Agreement, did not violate the Constitution.

It has been explained long ago that the camps from where US forces operate are not American but Philippine bases and that the GIs are not permanent visitors since at some future time they will be replaced by fresh troops.

This is merely restating the universal fact that nothing in this world is permanent – what more of GIs in our midst. If the honorable justices of the Supreme Court say not to worry these GIs are temporary visitors, what can we plain folk do?

As for the argument that EDCA needs the ratification or concurrence of both the US and the Philippine Senate, again the Supreme Court can argue the issue either way and rule whichever way — and sound correct.

In sum, the constitutionality of EDCA is what the Supreme Court says it is, so help us God.

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SAVINGS REDEFINED: If EDCA’s constitutionality is whatever the SC says, the wisdom of the proposed P2.606-trillion national budget is what the administration coalition in the Congress and their boss in Malacañang say it is.

For instance, unless the Supreme Court intervenes, what the Liberal Party-dominated Congress says is the definition of budgetary “savings” is controlling under the upcoming budget law.

Under the new definition of savings the administration can stop or suspend a program or project at any time, impound its unspent funds, declare them as savings and proceed to realign them for other things within the department.

This contravenes a Supreme Court ruling that savings are determined as such only at the end of the year. A new budget law allowing savings at any time the project or activity is stopped opens are entirely new political ballgame.

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PADDED BUDGET: Now we have, for instance, the proposed budget of the Department of the Interior and Local Government heavily padded with sums for activities and projects not germane to the basic functions of the department.

DILG Secretary Mar Roxas, presumed LP presidential candidate in 2016, can decide not to implement such projects – since they do not properly fall under his department  – then impound the funds as savings and proceed to use them for, say, promoting his candidacy.

In last Monday’s budget hearing, Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. questioned Roxas’ proposed relocation of city squatters and pursuing irrigation projects normally under the Department of Public Works and Highways or, according to Sen. Miriam Santiago, the National Irrigation Administration.

Such valid objections were heard, but ignored as the Senate eventually approved the DILG budget. These “savings” could be among many other deliberately misplaced appropriations that could later be impounded and used for political purposes.

Who will stop the possible resurrection of the unconstitutional Disbursement Acceleration Program whose illegalities had been smoothed out under the weight of the voluminous “errata” submitted by the Department of Budget and Management to the waiting Congress?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 27, 2014)

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