2012-02-18 Will the US and PH extend and expand military logistics agreement?

The RP-US Mutual Logistics Support Agreement (MLSA), a 10-year old military pact that requires the Philippines to service the logistics needs of the US military when they are in the country, is set to expire by November 2012. The MLSA, along with the VFA and MDT, is a vital cog in the permanent and continuing US military presence in the country. Its expiry this year occurs at a time when the US and Philippine governments are in negotiations for additional US troop presence in the country in line with the new US defense strategy of “re-balancing” towards Asia.

Not as well known as the Visiting Forces Agreement, the MLSA is an executive agreement entered into by the Arroyo regime in 2002 and was in effect for five years. It was renewed in November 21, 2007 after a review that was not disclosed to the public. It is set to expire on November 21, 2012.

The MLSA allows the US military to access Philippine facilities for a wide array of services such as refueling, re-supply, billeting of troops, transportation and so on. It practically allows the US to avail of the services that are typical of US bases, so long as these are during “approved activities”.

Under the MLSA, the Philippine government provides supplies such as food, water, petroleum, oils, lubricants, clothing, ammunition, spare parts and components.

Support and services include billeting, transportation (including airlift), communication services, medical services, operations support (and construction and use of temporary structures incident to operations support), training services, repair and maintenance services, calibration services, storage services, and port services. Storage units and ports shall at all times remain under the control and supervision of the host state

While the MLSA, on paper, does not allow the setting up of permanent US structures, the agreement allows the US military to be serviced by the Philippines during approved activities such as joint military exercises. These access and service arrangements allow the US to have all the benefits of formal bases, minus the potential political backlash in a country that booted out US bases in 1991.

Another advantage of the agreement is that it shifts the burden of spending for the hosting or servicing of US troops on countries like the Philippines. For example, the US has announced that more that some 8,000 troops in Okinawa will be redeployed to Guam, Australia and the Philippines. At the same time, the US announced that it will cut $21 billion in spending for the US base in Guam.

With the US unable to transfer the entire 8,000 troops to Guam, it will rely on “allies” like Australia and the Philippines to share the burden and at some point, pick up the tab, of hosting some 4,000 troops. Of course the US will “pay” for these services, “in cash or in kind” as the MLSA says. Payment for services rendered to the US can take the form of “logistic support, supplies, and services of an identical, or substantially identical nature.”

Activists have assailed the VFA as an affront to Philippine sovereignty. It transforms the country’s facilities into virtual US bases. It has also been branded as one-sided since in practical terms, only the US military is provided service under the pact.

Calling it ‘mutual’ or reciprocal doesn’t really make sense since Philippine troops and ships do not travel to the US or any other US facilities to avail of similar services from the US government.

It is possible that the US and Philippine governments may seek the expansion of the scope and duration of the agreement which is renewable after every 5 years. The US and PH governments make want to revise the MLSA to make effective indefinitely, like the VFA.

They may be contemplating making the MLSA in effect indefinitely and applicable at any time, even when there are no joint military exercises or joint activities. They may try to amend provisions which prevent the US from setting up certain structures and facilities. Already the US has expressed interest in gaining access to the northernmost Philippine province of Batanes (which is nearest China) as well as the province of Cebu in Central Philippines. The US may have to set up permanent facilities to host their ships and personnel.

It is clear that under its new strategy, the US is contemplating long-term presence in the Philippines. Wikileaks in the past revealed the US wanted dual-use airports, for civilian and military use, in Southern Philippines. US forces have been stationed in Mindanao for a decade now.

It does not help that any review conducted on the MLSA will not likely be made public. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has never disclosed any of the details of any review, whether the MLSA or the VFA. Details of the negotiations with Washington for the stationing of more US troops in the country have also been kept under wraps.

In March this year, the US State Department and Department of Defense will meet their Philippine counterparts in a meeting in Washington. The meeting comes just before the biggest PH-US joint military exercises called Balikatan (shoulder to shoulder) slated to take place in April in different parts of the Philippines. Perhaps then we will get an idea of the future of the MLSA and US military deployment in the country. ###