The Philippine-Australia military agreement, known as the Status of the Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA), which was poised to be ratified by the Philippine senate on June 6, has now been postponed until late July for final ratification. The SOVFA will enable Australian troops to conduct military exercises and other related activities in the Philippines. The SOVFA, as with the US Visiting Forces Agreement, sets the guidelines for the treatment of visiting Australian troops. The SoVFA was signed in Canberra in May 2007. The moves to ratify it now coincides with the plans of the United States to increase its military forces in the Philippines under a rebalancing scheme which significantly increases US and imperialist militarization of the Asia and Pacific region. The containment of China, which is emerging as a direct competitor to the US and other imperialist countries economic interests, is a key and explicitly stated objective of this heightened militarization.
Seven senators voted against ratification on the day Senator Loren Legarda, the chairperson of the Senate foreign relations committee, still managed to gain the support of 13 of the 21 senators present. However, this means that she was still two votes short of the necessary two-thirds of the Senate membership of 23, to ratify the agreement. This gives the anti-war movement, left and progressive forces a few extra weeks, to step-up the campaign to block the passage of the agreement.
The Australian-US Alliance
Australia is an important ally of the US and its relationship with the US is sometimes described as one of a “junior partner”. As a “partner” it defends its own national interests and its foreign policy serves the interests of the Australian capitalist class, the 1%. Australian big business has worldwide interests. From the Congo to the Philippines and Chile, Australian mining countries destroy communities and pollute the environment. Being a relatively small country, Australia lacks the military capacity to project power globally, so Australia’s 1% protects its worldwide interests by tying Australia’s military to the major power of the day. A hundred years ago, this meant Britain. Today, it means the US.
Australia’s military engagement in Afghanistan is just the latest in a long line of US-led wars of aggression Australia has signed up to, which includes Iraq (twice), Somalia, Vietnam and Korea. In the South Pacific it is a regional imperialist power & Australia’s powerful mining corporations operate with impunity & little regard for local indigenous communities, workers or the environment. While in the Philippines there has been no direct experience of the brutality of Australian imperialism, the people of the Pacific region, such as the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, have suffered and continue to suffer under Australia’s imperialist yoke.
The Australia-US military alliance has also shifted into higher gear along with the US shift to the increased militarization of the Asian region. The US lease on its military base in the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia runs out in 2016 and the Pentagon wants to relocate at least some of the military functions of the base to various Australian bases in Western Australian, Darwin and the Cocos Islands. The US has used Diego Garcia to base nuclear weapons, marines, warships, bombers and spy planes. And it has used it as a transit station for political prisoners sent for “rendition” to other countries so they can be tortured, though this is officially denied. Diego Garcia is a strategic hub of the US war machine.
The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, a part of Australian territory, was used as a military base by the British in World Wars I & II and now the US military wants the islands as a base for drones and other spy planes. The new Australia-US deal will allow for 250 US marines to be stationed in Darwin next year, increasing to 2500 by 2016. There will be increased US military ship visits to Darwin and other ports in northern Australia. There will be more US warplanes, including B-52 bombers, based in Darwin. Darwin, situated on the northern tip of the Australian continent, with its proximity to South East Asia, is strategically located. More joint US-Australian military exercises will take place on Australian soil. US military equipment will be stored in northern Australia, including cluster bombs. These weapons indiscriminately scatter explosive “bomblets” that remain deadly long after conflicts have ended and mainly harm civilians. The Australian Labor Government has fully backed and spearheaded these moves.
Even without the SOVFA, a small number of Australian troops have been deployed to the Philippines since 2001, to supposedly train Filipino soldiers. In July and August 2004, Australian Special Forces landed for joint training exercises. In 2005, there were press reports that the Australian police were conducting “covert operations” in the country. This was followed by reports that elite Australian troops had joined US and Filipino soldiers in operations against alleged terrorists in Mindanao. Even without the SOVFA, Australia can opt to continue sending troops to the Philippines, as long as the Philippine government consents. What Australia wants through the SOVFA is to secure the guarantees and exemptions that the agreement accords to Australian troops when they are deployed in the Philippines. Without the SOVFA Australian troops would be subject to the laws of the Philippines as ordinary tourists.
The Australian SOVFA and the US VFA
As with the US VFA, the Australian SOVFA should be scrutinized and exposed for its potential violation of Philippine sovereignty, its violation of Philippine laws on criminal jurisdiction and custody as well as the social and environmental costs of having foreign troops conducting prolonged and sustained military operations in our country.
For example, on the issue of criminal jurisdiction the SOVFA and the US VFA are similar. As with the US VFA, under the Australian SOVFA, the Philippines cannot exercise primary jurisdiction if the Australian side claims that an action was carried out in performance of an “official duty.” If, for example, an Australian soldier were accused of being complicit in the killing of innocent civilians or of other human rights violations, their Filipino victims would not be able to sue him or her in Philippine courts once Australian authorities claim, and Philippine authorities agree, that the action was carried out on “official duty”. Unlike under the US VFA Australia must “consult” with the Philippines on whether an action indeed falls under “official duty” and the Philippines apparently has the final say.
On the issue of custody, the SOVFA (unlike the US VFA) gives the Philippines custody of the accused during the trial period. Pending investigation, however, the Philippines would be able to detain the accused only if the soldier was already in the hands of Philippine authorities. If he or she were already in the hands of Australian authorities, however, they would remain with the Australians (though on Philippine territory). Upon conviction, on the issue of confinement to serve the sentence, the provision in the SOVFA is vague and lends itself to different interpretations.
Philippine experience with the actual application of the provisions of the VFA with the US was recently put to the test in the trial of US Marines accused of raping a Filipina in November 2005. US and Philippine government officials invoked the VFA’s provisions to justify the holding of the accused under US custody upon arrest and in the entire duration of the trial. A Philippine court subsequently found one US Marine guilty and ordered him imprisoned in a Philippine jail in December 2006. US and Philippine authorities again cited the VFA to defy the judge’s order. Under pressure from the US, which cancelled scheduled military exercises with the Philippines to express its displeasure with the Philippine Court’s order, Filipino officials promptly spirited the convicted rapist out of the Philippine jail, to be jailed in a cell inside the US embassy complex in Manila, according to US officials. We have no reason to believe that the experience will be any different under the Australian SOVFA.
Despite the minor ‘differences’, however, the SOVFA essentially seeks the same objectives for Australian troops as the VFA does for American soldiers: to exempt Australian troops from being subject to the laws of the Philippines by according them a different legal status “to the extent negotiable”, i.e. Australia will push as hard as it can for its interests to prevail under the SOVFA. While Filipinos or other nationals who are accused of committing offenses in the Philippines will have to go through the normal judicial process that applies to everyone in the country, Australian troops covered under the SOVFA will not.
The Philippine government support for the SOVFA is a part and parcel of its support for US strategic interests in the region, under the extremely misguided view that this somehow coincides with Philippine national interests. The Philippine elite are still doggedly committed to clinging on to the coat tails of a bigger power, living off its benevolence and under its shadow. For a majority of them this power is still the US and along with it they also have an ‘open door’ policy to welcome and even subjugate the nation to the interests of key US allies such as Australia.
The Philippines government best serves its national interests by pursuing an independent foreign policy, in keeping with the Philippine constitution. Major developing countries are emerging with greater economic and strategic clout, pro-people’s governments are creating new regional blocs and alignments, such as in Latin America, and peoples’ movements in the Middle East are challenging the old pro-imperialist status quo. In simply lining up with the US, Australia and ‘old’ imperialism, the Philippine government has once again demonstrated its lack of foresight and absence of leadership in crafting an independent vision and path for the country.