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The relationship between the Philippines and the Unites States was firmly in the spotlight in early 2012, as the US military's Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) marked 10 years of operations in the country in February, and as the two countries began to explore ways of further upgrading their strategic ties.
JSOTF-P was established within the scope Operation Enduring Freedom, Washington's global response to the 9/11 attacks, in early 2002, its mission being to eliminate the Islamist insurgents that proliferated in the Philippines' southern archipelago. Up to 600 US personnel have been based in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao since then, but it was in early 2012 that the task force arguably chalked up its greatest success so far. In early February, an air strike – possibly conducted by a US drone, or by a US fighter guided by drone surveillance – killed 15 militants from the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and Abu Sayyaf terror networks on the island of Jolo. Among them was Zulkifli bin Hir, a senior JI commander and a Malaysian national, who had been on the US' most-wanted list.
However, speculation is rife that the US could expand its presence in the Philippines still further, restoring somewhat the status it enjoyed until the closure of the US military facilities at Clark Air Base and Subic Bay in the early 1990s. While talk of new bases has proved politically sensitive, discussion of enhanced US 'access' to Philippine facilities has been openly admitted. The stationing of US Navy littoral combat ships – which is planned for Singapore – is one option being considered.
Like the US, the Philippines is concerned by China's growing military power and so is increasingly receptive to the idea of rebuilding its close defence relationship with Washington. Manila is also lobbying for more ex-US military equipment to help it re-equip its outmoded armed forces, and the promise of improved access to Philippine ports and air bases would be an effective inducement. Already, the US has begun channelling excess defence articles towards the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Two Hamilton-class cutters were delivered in 2011, and Manila is hoping to obtain more. In December 2011, it was widely reported that the air force was preparing to acquire a squadron of ex-US Air Force F-16 fighter aircraft in the near future in a bid to reconstitute its air combat wing, which ceased active service in 2005 due to a lack of serviceable aircraft. In January, it also emerged that a refurbished C-130 Hercules transport plane is due to arrive in the Philippines from the US by the end of March.
A postponed trip to Washington by Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has now been scheduled for April 30. The two ministers will meet with their US counterparts in what is being billed as a pivotal moment for the US-Philippine security relationship. When announcing the date of the summit, del Rosario mentioned that Manila was not only looking to the US when it comes to military procurement, but that other allies – including Australia and South Korea – would also be consulted. In February, the AFP took delivery of the first four of eight new Sokol light utility helicopters procured from Poland. The acquisition came as part of the first phase of the government's Capability Upgrade Program. Under the second phase, which is expected to get underway soon, Defence Minister Gazmin has said he plans to procure six lead-in fighter trainers – either from Italy or South Korea – and also anti-ship missiles, a capability designed to act as a deterrent against Chinese naval incursions.
Domestically, Manila suffered a disappointment in talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Mindanao-based separatist group, with which it had been hoping to strike a lasting deal in the first few months of 2012. The latest round of peace talks held in Kuala Lumpur ended in mid-February with no agreement being reached. Both sides struck a constructive tone and said that a deal could be achieved; however, sticking points include the constitutional status of a possible Moro homeland within the Philippine state.
Click for Report details:Philippines Defence and Security Report Q2 2012