04 July 2013

Palace allays anxiety over US, Japan access to Clark and Subic

Malacañang has allayed anxiety over the impact on business locators at Clark air base and Subic naval base should the Aquino administration go ahead with plans to allow American and Japanese troops “access arrangements” to these former US facilities-turned-economic zones.

Deputy Presidential Spokesman Abigail Valte said details of such access arrangements are still being worked out by the Department of National Defense as she downplayed concerns aired in the wake of reports that Clark and Subic—converted by law into prosperous economic zones after US military facilities shut down in 1991—may be the subject of yet another transformation, this time, to allow them to grant “increased access” to US, even Japanese, forces as America pivots to Asia and tensions grow in the South China Sea (SCS).

Asked if the shift to grant increased access to US troops could shake business confidence among the zone locators about the safety of their businesses, Valte indicated that the Aquino administration has not made any firm commitment on this despite increasing tension with China over conflicting territorial claims in the SCS, which Manila calls West Philippine Sea.

“At this point, we don’t want to discuss any details primarily because the details are still being studied,” Valte said, adding, “So, perhaps it it’s better to have that discussion when the defense department has a firmer proposal.”

Valte confirmed that defense officials are “still discussing...what we loosely call now the ‘access agreement’. I think that is what everybody loosely refers to as the access agreement; the details are still [being] studied.”

She noted that the assurance from the Department of National Defense is that whatever comes out of the study, the arrangement will follow the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement. But she also admitted in Pilipino that they do not know at this time if this will be covered by a separate treaty because the defense department is still discussing its “shape and form.”

Talk of granting “increased access” grew last week after Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin met separately with US officials and Japan’s defense minister. He said Manila was seriously studying the possibility of granting increased “access” to American military forces as its way of cooperating in the “US rebalance strategy” and, impliedly, getting US assurance of support should Chinese aggression heighten in the maritime dispute with the Philippines.

Also, added Gazmin, Manila was open to granting greater access to Japanese military forces, as well. Defense authorities used the phrase “rotational presence” to stress that no permanent basing set-up is contemplated.

Under the Bases Conversion Development Act, passed by Congress years after the Senate voted not to extend the RP-US Military Bases Treaty in 1991, the former sprawling base lands were converted into economic zones.

Clark was the Americans’ air base in Pampanga, and now hosts the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport; Subic was the largest naval installation outside the US mainland.

Although Subic Freeport hosts a wide range of global and local businesses, Subic Bay has been hosting an increasing number of US warships making quick stops in the country the past few years. (Butch Fernandez, Business Mirror)