Philippines urged to resist US military moves

A US soldier loads an Avenger surface-to-air missile system during the US-Philippines Balikatan joint military exercise at San Antonio in Zambales, north of Manila on April 25, 2023. (PHOTO / AFP)

Manila must resist moves by the United States to militarize the region, experts said at a forum on May 4, noting that Washington’s actions will hurt peace and stability and undermine the Philippines’ sovereignty as well.

The US is making disputes over the South China Sea as an excuse to use the Philippines as a launch pad for military operations in the Asia-Pacific region, according to analysts and activist leaders who participated in a discussion on Philippine-US relations. 

The Philippines needs to focus on its priority — which is economic development, Simbulan said. But to make that possible, it is necessary to have peace in the region. He said conflicts will only weaken the Philippine economy

The hybrid forum in Manila came just days after Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr met with US President Joe Biden in Washington, DC on May 1.

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Roland Simbulan, vice chairperson of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, a Manila-based think tank, warned against the Philippine-US military agreements including Manila’s recent decision to give US access to four new military facilities under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA. 

These sites make the Philippines a “sitting duck” for a US-instigated conflict in the region, Simbulan said.

“The Philippines is again in the direct line of fire in the US war machine,” he said, noting this has also been the case when the US military had bases in the northern Philippine provinces of Pampanga and Zambales. The bases were shut after the Philippine Senate voted against the Philippines-US Bases Treaty in 1991.

Simbulan said the US has a history of aggression and intervention, and warned that EDCA could be used to contain China and intervene in its Taiwan island. He said that under such agreement, the Philippine foreign policy has been “militarized”.

The Philippines needs to focus on its priority — which is economic development, Simbulan said. But to make that possible, it is necessary to have peace in the region. He said conflicts will only weaken the Philippine economy.

Francisca Castro, deputy minority leader at the Philippine House of Representatives, said instead of deescalating tension, the expanded US-Philippine military agreement is only heightening the competition between China and the US. With South China Sea as a potential flashpoint, it is the ordinary Filipino citizens and the country’s resources that will be caught in the middle of any potential conflict, she said. 

Castro said that instead of relying on the US military, Philippines can use more diplomatic means to resolve its dispute with China over the South China Sea. Such efforts could include conducting joint patrols with other Southeast Asian countries and lobbying in international parliamentary groups.

 Liza Maza, general secretary of the activist organization International League of Peoples’ Struggle and former member of the Philippine House of Representatives, said the US is using military agreements like EDCA to pursue its own agenda. 

The Philippines has a strategic location and the US presence in the country will allow Washington to control the booming regional trade in the Indo Pacific region, Maza said.

She cited last month’s US-Philippines joint military exercise — the largest iteration of the annual exercise commonly known as “Balikatan” (shoulder to shoulder).  

“Balikatan is a showcase for US military hardware,” Maza said, noting that weapons manufacturing is a profitable industry in the US. 

Ronnel Arambulo, spokesperson for the Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines, also spoke against Balikatan. He said the exercise has disrupted the livelihood of small fisherfolk as they were not allowed to fish when drills were being done. They were only compensated with some bags of rice and canned goods which are not enough. 

Arambulo said that what is worse is that these fishing drills are destroying the fishing grounds, threatening their source of livelihood over the long run.

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Maza said that it is about time the Philippine government focuses more on improving the country’s industries. By doing so, the nation can have enough funds to finance its own defense and security.

“Our national position should be based on our interest, which is to promote peace in the Philippines and in the region. We need to protect sovereignty and national independence,” she said.

“We are for true independent foreign policy,” said Wilson Lee Flores, chairman of the Anvil Business Club and moderator of the forum. Flores said that the Philippines needs to oppose neocolonialism and any move that will lead to war. He also highlighted the need for an independent mindset.