By Zachary Abuza
In his final year in office, President Barack Obama seems determined to step up his policy of rebalancing to Asia, in particular by deepening security cooperation with the Philippines. Despite shared strategic interests, U.S.-Philippines security relations are not where they should be.
The United States and the Philippines have increased the number of troops in their annual Balikatan military exercises and moved part of the exercise to Palawan, within 200 miles of China’s aggressive land reclamation.
Washington is also pleased with Manila’s increased military spending and acquisition program, however small and late it may be. The Philippines adds little to the military alliance, but the small improvements in force structure, including the purchase of South Korean fighters and other naval vessels from South Korea and Indonesia, are indications of will.
The United States has reached an agreement to base P3 Orions and P8 maritime surveillance planes out of Subic Bay on a rotational basis. These flights have been jointly manned with shared intelligence, which is essential as the Philippines has almost no maritime domain awareness.
However, some real concerns remain. In addition to the uncertainty facing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that both sides negotiated last year, the greatest threat to deepening defense relations could be the Philippine congress’ handling of the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), a legislation whose implementation will end the 43 year-old Moro insurgency in southern Philippines.
Congress has been deliberating the bill since September 2014, and was set to pass it with only slight amendments when the Philippine police’s Special Action Forces (SAF) conducted a botched raid in territory controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The operation left 44 SAF commandos dead. Hearings on the BBL in both houses were immediately suspended and replaced with rancorous hearings on the Mamasapano clash. Seven separate reports have been written on the clash, and they barely agree on basic facts, each representing institutional interests and passing the blame.
And much blame was passed to the U.S. government. While conspiracy-minded leftists see “U.S. fingerprints all over Mamasapano,” even the Senate report’s findings ascribed far too much of the onus to U.S. advisors. While U.S. personnel provided live feed from a drone and training for the operation, there was no evidence that this was a U.S.-led operation in violation of Philippine sovereignty. Indeed, when SAF troops got bogged down, U.S. personnel advised their the Philippine military to call in artillery strikes, which it refused to do. Others have insisted that the Philippines has been dragged into the U.S. war on terror, ignoring the fact that decades of failed counter-insurgency had led to a plethora of armed groups wreaking havoc in Mindanao and Sulu.
All presidential candidates – declared or not – have all taken hardline positions on Mamasapano in order to tap into the public sentiment, which quickly turned on the peace process and reverted to an instinctual view of the MILF as a group that cannot be trusted. And many congressional leaders, who put the blame for the clash squarely on the MILF, have made unreasonable demands to either resume the hearings or to garner their support for the BBL. These include calls for the MILF to completely disarm ahead of the conclusion of talks and for the MILF to hand over its combatants involved in the clash to face murder charges.
At the same time, Congress has stripped key provisions of the BBL out, including block grants and funds for disarmament, the requirement to notify the MILF about security operations within their autonomous zone, and the scrapping of a plebiscite for inclusion into the Bangsamoro by contiguous territories. Key members of Congress have been unyielding and bombastic, threatening the MILF that the group “can take it or leave it.”
President Benigno Aquino’s ratings have plummeted, from 59 to 38 percent between November 2014 and March 2015. His unwillingness to apologize and his peace negotiator’s defense of the MILF and the peace process have infuriated lawmakers and diminished his political capital.
While the MILF has stated that they will not pick up arms should Congress fail to pass the BBL, or pass a watered-down version, that’s only the MILF’s leadership talking. In the absence of the BBL, MILF leaders may not be able to deliver on their commitment to disarm and demobilize, and many rank and file will likely join groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters that are not party to the peace process or join criminal gangs. While there is no “sunset” clause in the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, which Manila and the MILF signed last March, the MILF could technically wait for the next administration to come to office following the next elections in 2016 in hopes that that Aquino’s successor will be committed to the peace process and willing to expend the political capital to have an acceptable BBL passed by Congress. Nonetheless, that is a risk MILF is unlikely to take.
The Philippine government can ill afford renewed conflict, and the head of the Armed Forces of the Philippines has called saber rattling in Congress “illogical.” Yet partisanship and politicking have carried the day. The window for a meaningful and equitable peace agreement is being killed as the electoral cycle approaches.
This comes at a time when the United States has already scaled back its counter-insurgency operations in the Philippines. The Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF-P) was disbanded in February 2015, with a skeleton advisory force remaining to provide intelligence and assistance at the command rather than the tactical level. The success of the peace process was a large factor in demobilizing JSOTF-P. U.S. military assistance to the Philippines, which reached $50 million in 2014 and $40 million in 2015, has increasingly been earmarked for non-insurgency related programs, including maritime surveillance.
Any renewed hostilities between the government and MILF factions will continue to make large swaths of Mindanao ungoverned territory. After years of supporting the peace process in southern Philippines, which both Washington and Manila viewed as integral to their joint security interests, Washington must be displeased with how domestic politics has sabotaged lasting peace.