Defense chief, activists debate legality of war games with Japan, as VFA eyed

interphoto_1435122869MANILA – (UPDATE2 – 4:05 p.m.) An activist lawmaker has sought an inquiry into Japanese military activity in the country, saying ongoing military exercises between the Philippines and Japan is not covered by a treaty and thus violates the Constitution.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, howevement necessitates collaboration and cooperation with regional countries.r, said there was nothing wrong with the first-ever joint naval drills off Palawan that began Tuesday (June 23), and explained that he and his Japanese counterparts had forged at least two earlier agreements to increase bilateral defense cooperation between the two Asian neighbors, both embroiled in maritime disputes with China.

The forging of a full-fledged Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with Japan is likely in the future, said Gazmin on Wednesday.

“To some observers, the President’s announcement of a Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan [came] as a bit of surprise. But there is nothing to be surprised about, for the matter of a Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan is a manifestation of the current state of Philippines-Japan bilateral relationship (which I could say as robust), as moving the relationship forward, meaning deepening the partnership further,” Gazmin said.

The Chief Executive visited Japan and met with ranking leaders of that country early this month.

Gazmin said President Benigno S. Aquino III had been deepening the country’s bilateral relationship, knowing too well that today’s strategic environ

“For us at the Department of National Defense, enhancing our bilateral defense relations and international engagement is something which we have pursued since Day One of the current leadership; working towards strengthening ties with countries we already have partnerships while continuously exploring ways on to forge partnership with those that the Philippines is still to have one,” the DND chief said.

2012 statement of intent

Unknown to many, added Gazmin, he and then Japanese Defense Minister Morimoto signed in 2012 “a statement of intent on defense cooperation where we declared our common trust to promote bilateral defense relations.”

From then on, both sides have continuously worked towards crafting “a Memorandum on Defense Cooperation which I and the current Defense Minister Nakatani signed early this year,” Gazmin stressed.

Earlier on Wednesday, ACT Teachers party-list Representative Antonio Tinio said, “President Aquino is committing a gross and blatant violation of the Constitutional prohibition on foreign troops in allowing the joint exercise with Japanese military forces.”

Tinio cited the surveillance flight of a Japanese P-3 Orion reconnaissance plane over the disputed Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea, which took off from an airfield in Palawan.

Tinio issued the statement the same day Japan and the Philippines flew patrol planes near disputed South China Sea waters for the second straight day, defying Chinese warnings. A Japanese P-3C Orion and a Philippine Navy Islander flew on a search and rescue drill 50 nautical miles (92.6 kilometres) northwest of Palawan, officials said.

While Wednesday’s flight was in the general direction of the resource-rich Reed Bank claimed by both the Philippines and China, officials refused to say if the planes flew directly over the area.

Following a similar flight on Tuesday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang warned against hyping the navy drills, suggesting they could undermine stability in the region.

Constitution violated – Tinio

Tinio pointed out that the Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign military forces in Philippine territory unless authorized by a treaty ratified by the Senate.

Article XVIII, Section 25, of the Constitution states: “Foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”

“The Philippines has no existing treaty with Japan allowing the presence of their troops in our country, much less the holding of joint military exercises and conducting Japanese reconnaissance missions from Philippine installations,” Tinio said.

According to Tinio,  existing agreements with Japan, such as the Memorandum on Defense Cooperation and Exchanges signed by Defense Secretary Gazmin and his Japanese counterpart in January 2015, or the declaration for strengthened strategic partnership recently signed by Aquino and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, do not fulfill the constitutional requirements and cannot be cited as the legal bases for Japanese military activities in the country.

“By all means, our territory must be defended against Chinese encroachment in the West Philippine Sea. But this must be done without surrendering national sovereignty and within the bounds of the Constitution,” Tinio said. “Pursuing an alliance is one thing, but transforming the Philippines into a base of operations for Japanese military forces would be a humiliating act of subservience.”

Endorsement of Japan’s militarism?

“For a country formerly occupied by Japan to host Japanese military forces on its soil would be unprecedented in post-World War 2 history, and President Aquino will have the ignominy of making it happen,” he said, calling the administration’s “endorsement of Japanese militarism” “reprehensible” and noting Japan’s continued refusal to apologize and make reparations to Filipino comfort women.

Japanese Maritime Self-Defence Force commander Hiromi Hamano told reporters that Wednesday’s joint training exercise was a success, shortly after the spy plane landed at an airbase in Palawan.

“I think it is important to continue HADR (humanitarian and disaster response), SAR (search and rescue) training with the Philippine Navy,” he added.

Malacanang also praised the drills.

“The Philippines has had these exercises before with our strategic partners,” deputy Palace spokeswoman Abigail valte said in a statement. “It should not be taken as an affront to any other and is an expression of cooperation and learning from all those involved.”

Wednesday’s flight was a “search and rescue activity,” Philippine Navy spokesman Commander Lued Lincuna told AFP.

The surveillance plane crew did not observe anything unusual in the waters, Hamano told reporters.

Reed Bank lies within the Philippines’ 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

An encounter between a Chinese vessel and a survey ship contracted by Filipino firm Philex Petroleum in 2012 has stalled exploration in the area.

The Philippine Navy is also holding separate naval exercises with its long-time ally the United States off Palawan this week, with a US P-3 Orion flight from the island scheduled on Thursday.

China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea overlaps with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

Beijing has ramped up construction of artificial islands on South China Sea reefs to reinforce its claim over the resource-rich waters that also host major shipping lanes.

It is embroiled in a separate dispute with Japan over the Senkaku (Diaoyu to Beijing)  island chain in the East China Sea.

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