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Nuclear weapons in the Philippines?

By Francisco S. Tatad | Apr. 22, 2013 at 12:01am
 

Parallel moves by Washington and Beijing appear to have persuaded Pyongyang not to carry out its nuclear threat against South Korea, the United States and Japan. But unless the threat has been completely neutralized, President B. S. Aquino III may yet succeed in making the Philippines a potential target for North Korea or China.

While we had earlier feared that a North Korean missile could hit the Philippines purely by accident or mistake, in the future Pyongyang or even China could aim its missile directly at the Philippines, should it finally host American military bases all over again.

Malacañang spokesmen have been mooting the idea, 21 years after Clark Air Base, home base of the US 13th Air Force, and Subic Naval Base, home port of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, had shut down. It seems a question of legacy. It was during Cory Aquino’s presidency that the bases were thrown out of the country without war or hostility; it would be under her son’s presidency they would now return.

Should it happen, B. S. III would simply be making up for his late mother’s failure to extend the 1947 U.S.-Philippine military bases agreement after it expired in 1991. Mrs. Corazon C. Aquino had tried to extend it for another 10 years through a new Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation; but only 12 of the 22 senators who had been elected because they were her candidates supported her, even as she sat at the Senate gallery during the voting, and a mammoth rally, which she had led earlier at Rizal Park, chanted pro-bases slogans outside the building.

B.S. III apparently does not want to repeat his mother’s experience. Having pulled out all the stops to gain control of the two other branches of government last year in order to impeach and remove the then-Chief Justice Renato Corona and ram through the highly divisive and widely opposed Reproductive Health law whose constitutionality is under serious judicial question, Aquino wants to leave no stone unturned in trying to assure passage of a new bases treaty, should there be one.

He is now campaigning on government resources, full time, for a 12-0 senatorial sweep by the administration candidates in order to make sure  he will have the required 16 votes minimum to support a new bases treaty, whatever its conditions and terms.

For the US, there seems to be some serious rethinking about the continued importance of permanent bases in the Philippines.  When the US military began to pull out from Clark and Subic after  Mt. Pinatubo erupted on June 15, 1991, and finally shipped out its last personnel and toilet bowl from Subic on Nov.  24, 1992, the “new thinking” then was that permanent land and naval bases had been rendered superfluous by mobile bases and rapid deployment.  But China’s emergence as a regional maritime power, with a strategic role to play in maintaining  the freedom of navigation in one of the world’s most important sealanes, has apparently brought the world’s military planners back to the old thinking.

In 1898, when the most heated debate in the U.S. dwelt on whether or not to colonize the Philippines, one of the most persuasive voices in that debate argued that the U.S. needed to “keep” the Philippines as a gateway to China, which Charles Denby described, as “a splendid market for our native products---our timber, our locomotives, our rails, our coal oil, our sheetings, our mineral plants, and numberless other articles.”

Now the US needs the Philippines in its effort to balance China, whose rise as an economic and military power seems to have become unstoppable, even as the United States and Europe enter into a period of decline. Moreover,  the Philippines has become an emerging economy by itself, with a large consumer market, vast reserves of energy and mineral resources, and a young and dynamic population.

Thus, although the last report written by the former U.S. Ambassador to Manila, Kristie Kenney, on B.S. III before he became president, as recently revealed by WikiLeaks, contained an “unimprovable” portrait of the man,  Washington has apparently  decided to make Aquino a poster boy, precisely because he is in no position to threaten or displease his master.

Aquino himself may resent Kenney’s unforgiving characterization. But the fact that he did not measure up to the minimum requirements of someone who should be leading a nation of 95 million mostly baptized Flipinos was precisely what decided Washington to adopt him as its poodle.

The same thing happened with his late mother, who became Washington’s darling after A. M. Rosenthal, the Executive Editor of the New York Times, told Secretary of State Geroge Shultz that she was a “dazed, vacant woman.”

Aquino is not known to have any profound philosophical, theological, sociological or geopolitical confusions.  His emotional quirks and addictions are well-known; even his mood swings are predictable.  These are qualities most useful to a foreign government that would like to build an enduring relationship with him.

Aquino’s foreign friends have not been slow or shy in exploiting his well-known addiction to video games, fast cars, guns and military hardware.   Thus, on May 15 last year,  US Ambassador Harry Thomas, who had been the first to proclaim Aquino as the new president in 2010 even before the presidential electoral tribunal could finish its official canvass,  took Aquino and three top Cabinet officials on a U.S. military aircraft and landed on board the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson while inside international waters.

This happened days after the Carl Vinson dumped into the Arabian sea what was supposed to have been the body of the slain Al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden.  It was pure juvenile adventurism which served no known state purpose at all.

Accompanying him on this folly were Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima, and his communications factotum Ricky Carandang.  They all seemed delighted to have been there. None of them seemed to know, despite their respective Cabinet ranks, that boarding the U.S. military aircraft was a great wrong, and that boarding the U.S. aircraft carrier was an even greater wrong.

Both acts placed the person of the Filipino sovereign, as well as the sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines itself, under the jurisdiction and control of a foreign power----specifically the military commander of the US aircraft and the US aircraft carrier.  And the nation did not know anything about it, until it was revealed later.

With such incident in the background, there is no reason to believe Aquino would be thinking very deeply about the merit of hosting US bases again.  He would probably be thinking more of how to remain America’s fair-haired boy, who would not have to perform as president in order to continue to be hyped as an “influential leader.”    His drift to one-man rule and the systematic destruction of the country’s democratic institutions would remain uncommented upon by  his American and European patrons, so long as they got what they wanted from him.

But unless North Korea is totally converted, and China welcomes  US bases in the Philippines,  the US bases, far from protecting this country, would make the danger  larger.  They would create, as Claro M. Recto repeatedly warned in the 50s, the strongest  magnets for a possible nuclear strike from enemies we may not even know and who may not even be our own.

From a national security perspective, therefore, the proposed return of the bases needs a serious rethink.  From the constitutional angle, it needs an even more serious rethink.

Under Sec. 25,  Article XVIII of the Constitution, 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.”

That purely procedural issue presents nothing insurmountable. But  Sec. 8, Article II  provides: “The Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons.”  That complicates the situation a little.

Further compounding the situation is the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone Treaty, which all Asean state parties  signed on Dec. 15, 1995 and the Philippines ratified on June 21, 2001.  The treaty obliges all not to develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or allow nuclear weapons within their respective territories, which include all their lands, waters (continental shelves and exclusive economic zone) and air space.

Unless the bases renounce their nuclear capability or  possession of nuclear weapons, they would not be able to function under these prohibitions.   Shall the contracting parties then conspire to circumvent or override the constitutional prohibitions by agreeing that no vessel or aircraft shall be subject to inspection, and that the operations of the bases shall be governed by the US policy of neither confirming nor denying the presence of nuclear weapons on board any vessel or aircraft?

That would constitute criminal conduct, and further and unimaginable abuses could follow. The US could even store nuclear weapons inside the bases, without the knowledge or consent of the Philippine government.  This has happened before; it should never happen again.

Declassified official US records have revealed that in the 60s or perhaps even before then, the US stored nuclear weapons in the Philippines without the knowledge of the government.  This information is contained in a top secret memo written in 1969 by Ambassador Robert McClintock to the Acting Secretary of  State, and declassified in 2006.

According to this Memo,  on Oct. 2, 1969, Sen. Stuart Symington, chairman of the National Stockpile and Naval Petroleum Reserves Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, was to conduct a hearing on the “storage of nuclear weapons in the Philippines.” Sometime before then, President Nixon directed the State Department through the National Security Council to withhold any information about the storage of nuclear weapons in the Philippines  from the Symington inquiry under the cover of “executive privilege.

The White House apparently feared that “divulgence of the fact that nuclear weapons are stored in the Philippines, and have been there for many years without prior consultation with the Philippine Government, would gravely jeopardize U.S.-Philippine relations, particularly on the eve of the presidential elections scheduled for October 11. The fact that President Marcos was secretly informed of the presence of these weapons in 1966 would not work to his advantage in the elections. The Philippine government and public are not aware of storage nor of President Marcos’ knowledge thereof,”  the Memo said.

McClintock feared that if the information was suppressed on the ground of executive privilege, the information could be leaked to the press, risking more damage than what was sought to be avoided.  He recommended instead that the Secretaries of State and Defense get in touch with the senators on the Symington subcommittee, tell them the facts off the record without any transcript being taken, and enjoin them under no circumstances to reveal the secret.

The 1935 Constitution, which was operating then, has no provision on nuclear weapons. Nonetheless, respect for Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity demanded that the foreign ally should have at the very least sought  the government’s prior consent before storing the weapons.  That was not done.

Although this secret was declassified in 2006,  it is not known until now whether those weapons had, in fact, been removed at all.  Therefore, the first order of business in any related conversation between Aquino and his American patrons is to demand the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about those weapons.

fstatad@gmail.com

 
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