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Foreign Policy and the Visiting Forces Agreement

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Atty. Corazon Fabros

Context of the TWG process

The Working Group had its beginnings in January 2006, with an initial core group of organizations involved mostly in peace and security issues at a period when the Arroyo government’s policy on the deployment of Filipino humanitarian personnel in Iraq was being challenged and the conditions of overseas Filipino workers deployed in that country was an urgent issue. It was after the hostage taking of Filipino driver, Angelo dela Cruz, by a group of Iraqis demanding the withdrawal of foreign troops who were part of the Coalition of the Willing.  Our experience out of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign which called for Filipino troops’ withdrawal in Iraq pushed us to find clarity on what Philippine foreign policy should be.

This was also the time when the TWG got involved with the rape case of Nicole within the premises of the former US military bases in Subic where the accused were US military personnel. The Nicole Case certainly raised important questions on the Visiting Forces Agreement. The US government denied the Philippine government’s request for custody of the accused soldiers added fuel to the movement calling for the abrogation or renegotiation of the accord with the US. These events should be seen in the context of the entire Philippine foreign policy, and as symptoms of broader issues relating to US military presence and to the pursuit of national interest.

In February 2006, the TWG on Foreign Policy held its first roundtable discussion called “Reviewing Critical Issues in Philippine Foreign and Security Policies: Towards and Assessment of the Visiting Forces Agreement with Prof. Roland Simbulan as main resource person. (See table below for other activities and projects that the TWG has undertaken)

The highlights of the discussions during that critical roundtable are as follows:

  • There are political and legal realities that a movement for genuine democratic, principled Philippine foreign policy must confront, but the most important realization is that as long as our leaders’ colonial mentality remains, there can never be a foreign policy that is truly reflective of the Filipino people’s interests.
  • The Visiting Forces Agreement has an impact on the resolution of the conflict in Mindanao. The VFA runs counter to the state’s pronouncements of seeking a just and peaceful resolution to the Mindanao problem.
  • Genuine peace in Mindanao can be achieved only when the historical injustices committed not only by the Americans but also by the successive Philippine governments against the Bangsa Moro people have been addressed.
  • There is clear evidence that contrary to the supposed provisions in the VFA and the government’s public pronouncements, American troops have been active in military operations against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
  • Globalization continues to influence the formulation of Philippine foreign policy. The formulation of an alternative, genuinely sovereign and democratic Philippine foreign policy lies in the reconstitution of our social structures. As long as the present social structures remain we will never have a foreign policy that is immune to the demands and interests of global capital.

In sum, this is how the TWG defines the principles that underpin the foreign policy it is advocating for:

Democratic: To redefine “national interest” as the collective interest of the Filipino people. With foreign policy often reserved as the exclusive concern of technocrats, diplomats, the military and business sectors, there is need to assert broader people’s participation in the formulation of the country’s foreign policy.

Principled: Foreign policy should address issues in terms of their economic and geo-strategic benefits as well as in terms of moral, legal, ethical considerations.

Independent:  It will not just be anchored on continuing the decades-long military alliance with the United States.

Strategic:  The promotion of alternative foreign policy is seen as part of a bigger goal to resolve perennial social-economic and political problems and to achieve global peace, development and social justice.

Priorities of the TWG and Emerging Issues
The Foreign Policy Research 2 which should have been completed at the end of 2010 would have been subjected to an RTD process to provide clarity on Post-EDSA foreign policy prescriptions and trends. Understanding the processes by which foreign policy is currently decided will help us identify key spaces for advocating alternative foreign policy.  In light of the limitation brought about by the non-completion of the research, there might be a need to pursue an alternative method to complete the project (using the Outline adopted). Needless to say, it has to be pursued as soon as possible, whatever method shall be used. It can be a series of Focus Group Discussions with resource persons. The documentation of these processes will then be the basis for a write-up of policy prescription and trends, analyses and recommendations.

Related to discussions on the presence of foreign military troops in the Philippines especially in Mindanao, relevant issues like Humanitarian Aid and Operations in Mindanao, UN Resolution on Responsibility to Protect, Right to Self Determination are subject matters that need to be better understood within Philippine context, though these issues interplay with what’s happening in other parts of the world. There is need to determine and analyze the objectives, directions and impact of these international tools in the long term.

In terms of defense and security, we need to look at the vintage Mutual Defense Treaty which is often cited by the Philippine government as the legal basis for more current agreements such as Visiting Forces Agreement 1 and 2, Mutual Logistics Support Agreement and Securities Engagement Board. In particular the SEB (a post 9-11 agreement) addresses non-traditional concerns including terrorism, transnational crimes, disasters and the threat of a pandemic outbreak.  It complements the Mutual Defense Board that focuses on cooperation against traditional or conventional threats such as an external armed attack envisioned under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. These agreements have to be scrutinized to ensure that Philippine territorial integrity is not sacrificed.

This TWG has been limited to issues relating to defense and security and on related concerns such as military and defense agreements with the United States. The current focus is far from what has been expected from it when the DRTS started and far from what it had set to accomplish in the beginning.  Constraining factors are also the composition and engagements of the organizations involved in the process. To a big extent, the delays in the completion of the Philippine Foreign Policy Research (envisioned to provide the historical context, content and direction) has slowed down and limited its RTD processes and engagement.  The focus now should be a clear Alternative Foreign Policy for the Philippines in this post Arroyo government period and which should now be an agenda for legislation.

Despite these limitations, the TWG on Foreign Policy has provided the space for brainstorming and cooperation among different organizations within Stop the War Coalition; for the creation of  the Citizens Peace Watch (a core of organizations here in Luzon and Mindanao that have been engaged in Fact Finding Missions, Monitoring and  Trainings in Human Rights and Documentation) that produced a valuable document which was used for lobby in Congress during Senate hearings and investigations  on the continuing military presence of US troops and the Visiting Forces Agreement. This document also helped popularize the issue in media.

The main challenge now that the TWG places before the Aquino presidency is the Visiting Forces Agreement. President Aquino has commissioned a Committee that would review the VFA and has promised to release the findings early this year.  No report has been released so far.

Here are our hard questions for the President:

Will the president have the political will to demand US responsibility for the toxic contamination of the former base lands at Clark and Subic?

Will this government uphold the Philippine Constitutional provision on foreign troops, nuclear weapons and military bases?

Will this government adopt a foreign policy that is democratic, principled, independent and strategic?

Table: Issues taken up by the TWG on Foreign Policy:

Issues RTD/Meeting/Forum Resolutions/Projects adopted/Results
Visiting Forces Agreement Reviewing Critical Issues in Philippine Foreign and Security Policies: Towards an Assessment of the Visiting Forces AgreementFeb. 13, 2006 Towards and Alternative Foreign Policy content of the WG direction
ASEAN, US and China Between Two Poles: ASEAN’s Relations with the United states and ChinaNov. 6, 2006 Preparation for the ASEAN Summit in Cebu and Asean Civil Society Conference. 
Philippines and ASEAN The Philippines and ASEAN: Towards and an Alternative RegionalismNov. 22, 2006 This forum serves as the culmination of the DRTS series of fora on the ASEAN in time for beginning the ASEAN summit.
Foreign Policy Research Part 1 – Philippine Foreign Policy (historical context)Part 2 – Philippine foreign Policy  (to provide a clear grasp of Post-EDSA foreign policy prescriptions and trends and a good understanding of the processes by which foreign policy is currently decided in order to identify key spaces for advocating alternative foreign policy ) Part 1 – Edited for possible publicationPart 2 – Outline only and unfinished write-up
Alternative Foreign Policy Call for Organizational/ Network-wide Position Papers on Foreign Policy Issues.*Themes taken up:  Alliance with the US; Relations with Europe, Australia, Japan (JPEPA); Relations with rising powers (Brazil, Russia, India, China); ASEAN, Regional Democracy, HR, Regional Integration, Regional Peace and Security; Relations with Global South; Relations with Multi-lateral institutions; Migration and overseas work; Mindanao; Terrorism Focus Group Discussions conducted by the KPD networks/sectoral organizations nationwide; FGDs with Partido Manggagawa teams
Current State of the U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines Herbert Docena introduced Focus on the Global South’s Special Report “’At the Door of All the East’: The Philippines in United States Military Strategy” that documents how and why the US has been re-establishing its presence in the PhilippinesDec. 18, 2007 *Provided the empetus to form the Citizen’s Peace Watch (to monitor and document the presence and activities of US troops in Mindanao and in other places in the country.*Fact-Finding Missions to Zamboanga-Sulu; Central Mindanao; Follow Up Zambo-Sulu*Monitors’ Trainings (in CL; NCR/ST, Zambo/Sulu; Cotabato)*FFM Report have been a useful document at Senate Hearings and Investigations on presence of US troops in Mindanao in proving that US has established military basing in the Phils; that US is involved in actual combat operations in the country; that Us military has complicity with the Phil. Military in “actual combat”; that US is conducting operations outside the control of the Phil. Govt. and military; that US military’s so-called humanitarian projects are mere cover for military operations that do not benefit the local population on a long term; that US basing and intervention in the Phils is contributing to insecurity and leading to an escalation in conflict
Understanding Mindanao Series (1, 2, 3, 4)
  1. History of Minoritization of Indigenous People of Mindanao
  2. Historical context and Mindanao situationer
  3. RIDO and other means of Settling conflict
  4. Peace Process, MOA- AD and alternatives
Materials on MindanaoProvided in-depth research findings and information on Mindanao and served as venue for democratic, participatory dialogue and exchange towards mutual understanding and coherent, collective and concerted Action
Implications of Post-Bush US Foreign Policy in the Philippines (on East Asia and South East Asia on implications of Post-Bush US Foreign Policy in the Philippines and in the Region) “Change You Can Believe In?Implications of Post-Bush US Foreign Policy in the Philippines”Forum with Prof. Robinson  
China “Dragon on the Rise: The Implication of China’s Assent to Power”Forum with Prof. Peter Kwong CSO Forum under the DDARP
Good Bye Bush, Hello Obama Critique on Bush and projections on possibilities under Obama  




ASEAN Association of Southeast Asian Nations

DDARP Deconstructing Discourse and Activist Retooling Program

FFM Fact finding mission

JPEPA Japan-Philippine Economic Partnership Agreement

MOA-AD Memorandum of Understanding on Ancestral Domain

RTD Roundtable

SEB Securities Exchange Board

TWG Thematic Working Group

US United States

VFA Visiting Forces Agreement


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