MANILA, Philippines – American negotiators have agreed that Philippine authorities can have access to U.S. facilities set up inside local military bases, hurdling a key obstacle in their talks on a new military accord, Philippine officials said Friday.
That "access has always been a primordial concern" for the government, said Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, the head of the Philippine negotiating panel. It would show Filipino control over these areas, a sensitive issue concerning sovereignty in this former American colony.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said late last year that disagreements over the issue of access and control were delaying the negotiations on the new accord that will allow increased U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
The Philippines is seeking stronger defense cooperation with the U.S. as its territorial dispute with China over areas in the South China Sea intensifies. This dovetails with Washington's intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq to Asia.
Negotiations began in August on an agreement that would allow larger numbers of U.S. troops to have temporary access to Philippine military camps and bring in aircraft, ships and other equipment. Hundreds of U.S. troops have already been deployed in the country's south to provide counter-terrorism training to Filipino soldiers since 2002.
"It is safe to say that there will be language that will provide that the Philippine authorities would have access to the areas provided to the U.S. armed forces," Batino told reporters.
Eduardo Malaya, a member of the panel, said access is "assured" and what is left to be discussed "is the sharing of responsibilities with respect to security" of the installations. He said the agreement may be for "shorter than 20 years."
The Philippine negotiators did not say whether there will be any limit to the number of U.S. troops or their length of stay. Batino, however, said any U.S. military facility will not be "a base within a base."
The Philippine constitution disallows foreign military bases unless under a treaty approved by the Philippine Senate. Opponents of the new accord say it is a way to permanently station U.S. troops in the country to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on foreign bases.
The statements from the Philippine negotiators followed the latest round of talks in Washington. Batino said the talks were substantive and "significant progress was made ... to enhance cooperation in defense, security and related fields, including humanitarian assistance and disaster response."
Nearly a century of U.S. military presence in the Philippines ended in 1992 when Americans closed their bases, including what were then among the largest overseas U.S. military facilities. The Philippine Senate voted a year earlier not to renew the lease on the bases.