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Hither and Yon

WorldTribune.com: The more things change....

‘I shall return’: 70 years after MacArthur’s triumphant return to the Philippines, history repeats itself
Special to WorldTribune.com

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com

MANILA — U.S. forces were supposed to be gone from the Philippines for good by 1991 when the U.S. pulled out of Clark Air Base after ashes from the eruption of Mount Pinatubo inundated the airstrip and the Philippine Senate refused to renew the lease on the bases.

Now they’re coming back, attuned to anti-base sensitivities and unpleasant memories of GI’s carousing around base towns that still prosper today on tourists in search of the same pleasures as the GI’s.

Two years after leaving the Philippines, U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur uttered the following on Oct. 20, 1944: ” People of the Philippines: I have returned. By the grace of Almighty God our forces stand again on Philippine soil — soil consecrated in the blood of our two peoples.”
Cautiously, the U.S. and the Philippines escalated their defense relationship this week with a landmark agreement on U.S. forces carefully scripted to sidestep a constitutional ban on “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities” except when approved by Philippine senate or by a national referendum.

President Obama, on his first visit to the Philippines, hailed the agreement, signed three hours before he got here by the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines and the Philippine defense secretary, as “an important new chapter in our relationship.”

That said, he quickly added that the U.S. was “not trying to reclaim old bases” and did not plan to “build new bases.”

Instead, the pact, formally the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement,” shortened to the acronym, EDCA, would provide for U.S. forces to rotate in and out of existing Philippine bases for missions ranging from narrowly defensive to humanitarian to training the Philippines’ small, weak military establishment to fight guerrillas from the communist New People’s Army and Islamic terrorist groups. The agreement is to last for ten years — after which it can be renewed.

Officials did not say so, but U.S. navy ships can now return to Subic Bay and airplanes to Clark from which they once ranged freely on operations from the Middle East to Vietnam. They’re now Philippine bases as well as commercial shopping areas, but Philippine forces hardly make full use of them.

The Philippines has not a single airworthy fighter plane and only a few former U.S. coast guard cutters for patrolling the incredibly long coastlines around the country’s 8,000 or so islands.

Both Obama and the Philippines president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, son of Benigno Aquino, murdered as he returned to the Philippines in 1983 to defy the dictatorial Ferdinand Marcos, and the widow Corazon Aquino, the president when the U.S. withdrew from its historic bases, were careful not to attribute the agreement to China’s claim to the South China Sea.

They said not a word about the Philippines’ clinging to two of the Spratly islands, some of which are held by China, or China’s takeover of the Scarborough shoal within Philippines territorial waters west of Subic.

The next day, though, Obama left no doubt as to what lay behind the deal, telling Philippine World War II veterans that the U.S. commitment “to defend the Philippines is ironclad” because “allies never stand alone.”

Concerns about China, of course, had led to negotiation of EDCA within the context of a “visiting forces agreement” signed in 1999 under which small numbers of U.S. troops have been advising Philippine forces battling Islamic rebels.

No one thinks EDCA would have happened were it not for the dangers posed by China in the South China Sea as seen in Chinese forces scaring Philippine fishermen away from the Scarborough shoals and deployment of Chinese warships, including the lone Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.

Not that China and the U.S. are about to go to war in the near future, but EDCA seems to be the precursor of a larger U.S. presence as hostilities pick up around the periphery of China. Flashpoints range from the Indian subcontinent to the East China Sea, where China’s backs up its challenge to Japan’s grip on the Senkaku Islands, Diaoyudao in Chinese, with overflights and standoffs between fishing boats and the Japanese coast guard. Obama, in Tokyo, was definitive about the U.S. commitment to Japan on the Senkakus even if he stopped short of saying Japan has “sovereignty” over the island cluster.

Obama talked equally tough in Seoul about the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. His promise to consider postponing OPCON, under which South Korean commanders by the end of next year were to assume “operational control” in time of war, strengthens the U.S. commitment.

South Korea needs more time to be sure its forces can function effectively on their own if the perpetual standoff with North Korea turns into a second Korean War.

The confrontation with North Korea may not be quite the same as that in the South China Sea or the East Sea. North Korea isn’t China, but China keeps the North on life support with infusions of fuel and food and would surely be on the side of North Korea if “stability” broke down on the Korean peninsula.

Obama in his Asian odyssey denied any desire to “contain” China, but that’s what his trip was all about.

Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering conflict around China since China’s invasion of northern India in 1962. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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