By Norman Bordadora
Malacañang on Saturday said it was willing to discuss with the senators a planned agreement to give the United States and other allies access to Philippine military bases after some of the lawmakers raised concerns about the constitutionality of the plan.
In an interview on state-run radio dzRB, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said the Department of National Defense was looking at various ways of giving the Philippines’ allies temporary access to the country’s military bases, but the final plan would be in accord with the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin confirmed the study on Thursday in reaction to a foreign news report that the Philippines had plans to build new air and naval bases that US forces could use to counter China’s creeping presence in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Gazmin clarified that the Philippines would not build new air and naval bases, but give the United States, Japan and other allies access to its military bases.
On Friday, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile raised doubts about the legality of the access plan, as the Constitution prohibits foreign military bases in the Philippines.
The Senate voted 12-11 in 1991 to expel US military bases from the Philippines, but ratified the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States in 1999 to allow US forces to conduct joint exercises with Philippine forces in the country.
Sen. Loren Legarda, head of the Senate foreign relations committee, said any plan to give the country’s allies access to Philippine military bases should strictly accord with the VFA.
Several senators also expressed reservations about the plan conceived last year amid a standoff between the Philippines and China over Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a rich fishing ground within Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea.
The senators said the government needed to consult the Senate on the access plan. Valte said Malacañang understood the lawmakers’ concerns.
“We are open to discussions,” she said.
Enrile said the VFA allowed only temporary presence of US troops in the Philippines.
“They cannot establish any military base in the Philippines,” Enrile said.
“Temporary or whatever term they use, no military bases. If it assumes a certain degree of permanence or stability, it’s no longer visiting forces,” he said.
But if the access plan would allow foreign forces to stay in the Philippines for an unlimited period, “[t]hat would be an issue before the Supreme Court,” he added.
Gazmin said the stay of foreign forces under the access plan would be temporary.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, a former Navy junior officer, said the Senate would wait for the final copy of the planned access agreement.
“If it would be a separate agreement similar to the VFA, it would need Senate approval. But if it would only [implement] prior agreements, it won’t need [approval by the Senate],” Trillanes said.
Asked if it was in the interest of the Philippines to give its allies access to its military bases, Trillanes said, “The strengthening of alliances through joint exercises and visits of forces should help improve our national security situation in general.”
Outgoing Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former chief of the Philippine National Police and chair of the Senate committee on national defense, said there is a “wide gray area” in the access plan.
“The [defense department] should exercise prudence by at least consulting the senators on the matter,” Lacson said. Sen. Gregorio Honasan said the Senate should take a look at the plan. Given the number of administration senators in the next Congress, the plan can be expected to win Senate approval, he said.
“I think because of our weaknesses (militarily), we have limited options,” Honasan said.
Sen. Francis Escudero, head of the Senate committee on justice, said there was no need for Senate approval.
“Only treaties need to be ratified by the Senate. Foreign policy and relations are still primarily within the domain of the executive branch,” he said.
Asked if the senators need to be consulted on the matter, Escudero said, “It’s always better to get the consensus or at least the opinion not only of the Senate but also of key stakeholders in order for things to flow more smoothly.”
He said, however, that the executive branch has sole discretion over such consultations.