Slight of Hand

Dispatches From the Edge

May 17, 2002

On the surface, the deployment of U.S. troops in the Philippines is part of the White House’s war on international terrorism. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Ka) calls the archipelago “the next target, after Afghanistan, in the war on terrorism,” and U.S. Dep. Sec. of Defense Paul Wolfowitz describes it as a strike against “the extended Al Qaeda network.”

But is it?

Americans are virtually alone in describing Abu Sayyaf, the target of the more than 1200 US soldiers on Basilan Island, as anything more than a collection of particularly brutal thugs. Southern Philippine commander Lt. Gen. Roy Cimatu describes them simply as “criminals,” and Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo admits there has been no contact between Abu-Sayyaf and Al Qaeda since l996. Even those “contacts” consist of little more than a tenuous relationship between Abu Sayyaf’s founder Aburajak Janjalani and Mohammed Jamal Khalifa, Osama bin Ladin’s brother-in-law.

The Philippine government seems more concerned with the bottom line than any threat a tiny organization like Abu Sayyaf poses. Arroyo picked up $100 million in military aid when she visited Washington last November, plus a pledge of $4.5 billion in economic aid to help jump-start the Philippine economy.

Arroyo’s motives seem obvious. Not only is Abu Sayyaf an economic windfall, but supplying Philippine military with M-16s and helicopters will allow the government to be more aggressive toward other Muslim insurgent groups in Mindanao, as well as the New People’s Army on Luzon. But modern weaponry will do little more than make a bad situation worse, particularly if it feeds the illusion that a military victory over anti-government groups is possible. What it will certainly do is increase casualties among civilians, and it may torpedo on-going talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the government. MILF negotiator Al Haj Murad told the Financial Times that American military aid and personel will “only complicate the situation in Mindanao.”

The deployment has already sparked a growing opposition movement and charges that Arroyo has violated the 1987 Constitution, which bars the stationing of foreign troops in the island nation. So why is the Administration pouring soldiers and equipment into the Philippines? Is all this sturm und drang really about a scruffy band of pirates in the Sulu Sea, or is something else afoot?

A tip off was a recent statement by Arroyo’s top foreign policy advisor, Roberto Romulo. A strong U.S.-Philippine relationship, he argued, would “balance any hegemonic tendencies from China, to discourage them from ambitions in our part of the world.”

Once China comes into the picture, the Philippine adventure begins to make more sense. While the American media has focused on U.S. advisors and combat units on Basilin Island, the U.S.has quietly been seeking an agreement to store military equipment throughout the Philippines and secure the rights for military over flights. The U.S. is also negotiating a return to its former port at Subic Bay, as well as securing “temporary basing” rights for U.S. troops.

“The U.S. has always been interested in setting up supply depots in the Philippines to replace the bases (it lost a decade ago),” says Ronald Simbulim of the University of the Philippines, “and the joint US-RP (Republic of the Philippines) military exercises may provide the perfect cover to set that up.”

One such exercise, Balikitan 2002, has been extended from several weeks to up to a year. The operation brings together 2,900 US troops and 2,900 Philippine troops to practice repelling an external threat. Except this time around, South Koreans and Japanese, plus observers from 10 regional countries, have been invited to take part. The Bush Administration also wants to link Balikitan (“Shoulder to Shoulder”) to the Asia-wide US military maneuvers called Team Challenge.

The Chinese are likely to view all this as an attempt to ring them with hostile bases, much like the “containment” policy aimed at the Soviet Union during the Cold War. As Stephen Rosen of the influential Olin Institute for Strategic Studies puts it in The Future of War, “China is not yet powerful enough to be a challenger to the American empire, and the goal of the United States is to prevent that challenge from emerging.”

The Bush Administration has already said it is willing to use nuclear weapons in the advent of a war between China and Taiwan, and the new anti-ballistic missile system the White House is building in Alaska will precisely cancel out China’s 18 to 20 ICBMs. Add to that a much more aggressive U.S. posture toward intelligence gathering off China’s coast, and the Philippines looks increasingly like it is in the process of becoming once again, America’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the Pacific.

So the Philippines gets a hotter and bloodier civil war, the American people get a slight of hand about fighting terrorism, and the U.S. gears up for a face off with China. Does any of this sound like a very good idea?

Conn Hallinan

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