Herbert Docena: Southeast Asian Security

Herbert Docena

Herbert Docena

Herbert Docena speaking at the "Peace in Asia and the Pacific" conference in Washington, D.C.

Peace in Asia and the Pacific: Alternatives to Asia-Pacific Militarization

Presentation by Herbert Docena

Greetings. I would like to thank the organizers for convening this timely conference.

Most of you know that this year marks the tenth anniversary of 9-11 and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. How many among you know, however, that, in three months, we will also be marking the tenth year of the return of US military forces to the Philippines?

Unknown to many people here in the US, back in January 2002—or just a couple of months after the US invaded Afghanistan while also beginning to prepare to invade Iraq—elements of the US Special Forces also quietly sneaked back into the Southern Philippines—site of a long-running war between the Philippine government and Moro separatists. Not many people also know that—just as in Afghanistan—they have not left since then.

At first, the Philippine and US governments kept insisting that these US Special Forces were only there temporarily, for regular but occasional visits—and only to engage in “training” exercises.

After a while, however, those claims started to sound fishy: Not only did we hear of US forces constructing permanent, if still basic and unobtrusive, facilities in the southern Philippines, we also kept hearing reports from local communities of US forces actually being involved in combat—accompanying Filipino troops as they battled Moro rebels, which they claimed to be “al-Qaeda-linked terrorists.”

We set out to investigate these reports. Aware of a media black-out and an aggressive PR campaign to conceal the truth, we analyzed as much publicly available US military documents as we could find, such as official US government publications and even US military magazines and journals. Working with local communities and local organizations, we went to some of the most far-flung villages to interview local residents who witnessed US and Philippine troops in action.

What we found was disturbing: Contrary to US and Philippine government pronouncements, the US Special Forces have not only actually established a permanent presence in the Southern Philippines—in direct violation of the Philippine constitution. Embedded in the Philippine military, they have also actively engaged in fighting Moro rebels in the country.

This, we soon realized, was a new form of basing and intervention that we had not expected—a new form of basing and intervention that the US has been developing and deploying around the world since 2001.

According to the various military documents we analyzed, US military strategists—as part of the most radical review and transformation of US global posture in years—have for years been arguing in favor of a new global basing and global deployment strategy that avoided the problems of their traditional basing and deployment strategy:

Unlike the large, mammoth bases of the past such as the ones they used to have in Subic and Clark—which tended to attract a lot of attention and hence local opposition and restrictions—the new form of basing they wanted should be less visible; rather than being concentrated in a few large centers, their expeditionary capabilities should also be more numerous and more scattered around the world. Rather than have large and bulky forces, the US should also have small expeditionary forces scattered around the world always on the go, flexible and mobile, agile and nimble—ready to deploy at a moment’s notice.

This, it turns, out is precisely the kind of basing and deployment capabilities they have developed in the Philippines along with numerous other places in the world—such as in the Horn of Africa, etc.

Though the US and Philippine governments vigorously denied our findings when we began publicizing them several years ago, our findings have since been confirmed, most recently, by the Washington Post—as well as by Wikileaks.

This, I think, has important implications for those of us concerned about and advocating for peace in Asia and elsewhere: Since the Pentagon is becoming ever more creative and more sophisticated about its strategies, we should try our best to keep abreast with these changes. The US military is finding ever more creative ways of overcoming the limits of geography and trying to sidestep growing local opposition to US presence and we should be ever more attuned to those changes so we recognize them when program.

The conference program stating that the US is “exploring the return of military bases to the Philippines” is correct, if we think—as we did—that the US is interested in reestablishing the kind of large bases they once had in Clark and Subic. But if we recognize that the US is not just—or even primarily—interested in these kinds of traditional bases, but in new, more sophisticated and less visible—forms of basing—then the US has actually already succeeded in reestablishing its presence in the Philippines.

This is particularly significant since this year also marks the 20th anniversary of the rejection of the US bases treaty which led to the closure of Subic and Clark.

Why does the US want this sophisticated basing and deployment capabilities in the Philippines?

The US and Philippine governments insist that this is part of the “war on terror” but the analysts and military planners we reviewed seems to have a completely different goal in mind: to encircle China.

As I hope to discuss further in the workshop later, this is disconcerting because this military build-up is precisely the one factor that could impede peaceful dialogue and cooperation in the region and lead to an escalation that could spiral out of control.

Here’s the problem: the more that the US beefs up its presence in the Philippines and the South China Sea, the more threatened China feels. The more threatened China feels, the more it will take what will be interpreted as aggressive actions by others in the region—such as establishing military facilities in the Spratlys. The more China undertakes these kinds of actions, the more threatened countries like the Philippines and Vietnam becomes. The more threatened countries like the Philippines and Vietnam becomes, the more likely they are to turn to the US for “protection”—thus giving the US even more reason to deepen its presence in the region, thus further provoking China, and so on.

It is a vicious cycle that we better stop before it spirals out of anyone’s control.

Military escalation in the Philippines and Southeast Asia will not be to anyone’s interest—not to the Filipinos, not to the Chinese, and not to the American people. 

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