L'on reparle de la présence permanente, mais en rotation, de troupes américaines sur le sol philippin.

Depuis 2001 et surtout 2002, ce retour est déja effectif, même s'il reste généralement discret. Officiellement, bon an, mal an, ce sont 2.000 hommes en uniforme qui se trouveraient  sur l'archipel. Mais officieusement, si l'on fait entre en ligne de compte les personnels qui ne sont pas en uniformes. 

Combien sont-ils ?

The access agreement being negotiated between Manila and Washington - due to the ‘evolving’ security situation - will not put a ceiling on the number of American troops or military assets that will be allowed in the country at any given time.

Negotiator Carlos Sorreta acknowledged that “we’re not talking about numbers in this negotiation,” which aims to conclude an executive agreement that will allow for the increased rotational presence of American troops.

Philippine and American negotiators held the first round of talks on a framework agreement on “Increased Rotational Presence/Enhanced Defense Cooperation” Wednesday in military headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo. The next round will be hosted by the US in the second half of this month.

“It’s really hard to say numbers. Many of the possible activities really don’t require a lot of boots on the ground,” Sorreta said.

He point out, though, that the Americans “know we cannot have large numbers, they know we can’t do permanent.”

American military presence is an emotional issue for many Filipinos.

The US maintained a naval base in Subic, Zambales and an air force base in Clark, Pampanga until the facilities were shut down in 1992. The decades that the US operated the bases were haunted by accounts of abuse and atrocities against locals by American military personnel stationed there.

The 2005 rape of a Filipina by Lance Corporal Daniel Smith, who was participating in a joint military exercise in Subic, and the damage caused by the grounding of the US minesweeper USS Guardian in Tubbataha Reef earlier this year opened old wounds for many Filipinos.

But while closure of the bases led to a cooling off in Philippine-US defense ties, the global campaign against terrorism led to warmer relations and greater cooperation.

The US in 2003 maintained as many as 2,000 troops on a rotational basis in Mindanao, which former US embassy charge d’Affaires Joseph Mussomeli in 2005 compared to 1990s Afghanistan.

“In 2002, the Joint Special Operations Task Force–Philippines (JSOTF-P) was established as part of Operation Enduring Freedom to support ‘the comprehensive approach of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in their fight against terrorism,’” said a 2012 report written by analyst Thomas Lum in a report to the US Congress.

The strength of the Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) has been scaled down to around 600 since then.

It is uncertain how the new access agreement being negotiated will affect the current size of the JSOTF.

Sorreta said he is unaware of a “legal cap” on the number of US troops allowed in the Philippines, noting that “the Supreme Court said the executive has the prerogative to determine these things within reason.”

Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, a member of the negotiating panel, said activities to be undertaken under the new agreement will still be determined through regular consultations between the US Pacific Command and Philippine Armed Forces top brass.

“It is the intention of the Department and the AFP that, after this framework agreement is signed, that we sit down among ourselves and determine guidelines that will govern the internal consenting mechanism of the DND and AFP so that, one, the activities that will be approved would truly serve the interest of the Philippines, and, two, that the activities and details of these activities such as the size, shape, duration would still be sensitive to the situation on the ground,” he explained.

The Philippines believes that the negotiations for the access agreement could take as short as four rounds.

In their initial talks, the negotiating panels exchanged drafts of the agreement and discussed provisions of the accord that included its scope; installations/military facilities; equipment, supplies, and materiel; protection of the environment; and a dispute settlement mechanism.

The negotiations are taking place with the backdrop of Beijing’s increasing military assertiveness in the contested waters and Manila’s inability to project its maritime interests due to a practically non-existent Navy and Air Force.

“Our region would also need to know that we are steadfastly for peace; but that we stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance, to do what is necessary in order to defend what is ours, to secure our nation and to keep our people safe,” Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a previous statement.

Philippine authorities said that among the benefits the increased rotational presence of US troops is the possible introduction of improvements in facilities where the Americans will preposition military assets.

Asked if an agreement that will allow US-sponsored improvements on Philippine military facilities will require Senate concurrence, Sorreta said: “Our mandate is to negotiate this to make sure that there are no obligations that you will enter into that will require the triggering of the Constitutional mandates on (Senate) concurrence.”

“It’s going to be an executive agreement because it’s really just setting up a framework.”

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