MANILA, Philippines -- Sixteen years ago, the Philippine Senate made the historic vote to shut down what American analysts once described as ?probably the most important basing complex in the world? -- the US military bases in Subic and Clark, along with other smaller support and communications facilities in the country.
Taken after long and emotional debates, the Senate vote shook the Philippines? relations with its most important ally. That one small and weak country could say no to what by then had become the world?s only remaining superpower reverberated across the world.
Since then, every move by the US military in the Philippines has provoked controversy. For the most part, however, the question has tended to be framed in terms of whether the United States is seeking to reestablish the kind of bases it had in the past. Such framing has consequently allowed the US and Philippine governments to categorically deny any such plans.
But what has since emerged is not a return to the past but a new and different kind of basing.
Since the end of the Cold War in 1989, but in a process that has accelerated since the Bush administration came to office, the United States has embarked on what American officials tout as the most radical reconfiguration since World War II of its ?global defense posture.?
This term no longer refers simply to the over 850 physical bases and installations that the United States now maintains in 46 countries around the world. As US Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas J. Feith explained: ?We are not talking only about basing, we?re talking about the ability of our forces to operate when and where they are needed.?
Billed as the ?Integrated Global Presence and Basing Strategy,? the plan seeks to comprehensively transform the US overseas military presence -- largely unchanged since the 1950s -- in light of perceived new threats and the United States? self-avowed ?grand strategy? of perpetuating its status as the world?s only military superpower.
?The [US] military,? declared President George W. Bush, ?must be ready to strike at a moment?s notice in any dark corner of the world.? To do this, the 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), an official document required by the US Congress of the Pentagon to articulate US military strategy, stated that the United States was seeking to move away from ?obsolete Cold War garrisons? to ?mobile, expeditionary operations.?
The plan is simple: Instead of concentrating its troops and equipment in only a few locations, the United States will decrease the number of large well-equipped bases and increase the number of smaller, simpler bases in more locations.
Marine Gen. James Jones, commander of US forces in Europe, described the aim as developing a ?family of bases? that could go ?from cold to warm to hot if you need them? but without having the ?small town USA?-feel, complete with schools and families that have typically come with such bases.
Recognition of the rising opposition to the US military presence around the world is also driving these changes. As early as 1988, a US government commission created during the Reagan administration concluded: ?We have found it increasingly difficult, and politically costly to maintain bases.?
Apart from those in the Philippines, US bases have been closed or terminated in recent years in Puerto Rico, Panama and, recently, Ecuador, as a result of public mobilizations. Turkey refused to allow the United States to use its bases for the invasion of Iraq. Even in Japan and Korea, hostility to US bases has been growing.
Hence, the United States has been trying to restructure its overseas presence in a way that aims to undermine this growing opposition. As US Navy Rear Admiral Richard Hunt, the Joint Staff?s deputy director for strategy and policy said: ?We don?t want to be stepping all over our host nations?We want to exist in a very non-intrusive way.?
The aim, according to the Pentagon, is to ?reduce the forward footprint? of the military while increasing its agility and flexible.
As part of this overall reconfiguration, the Pentagon now categorizes its overseas structures into three -- Main Operating Bases (MOBs), Forward Operating Sites (FOSs), and Cooperative Security Locations (CSLs).
The FOSs and CSLs are also called ?lily pads? intended to allow the United States to hop from MOBs to their destinations rapidly when needed but without requiring a lot of resources to keep them running when not needed. Referring to this kind of base, General Jones said, ?We could use it for six months, turn off the lights, and go to another base if we need to.?
But, as mentioned earlier, the US definition of ?global posture? goes way beyond physical structures. In an effort to maximize its forward presence while minimizing opposition, the United States has also been seeking to increase what US Air Force-sponsored analysts call ?mission presence? and ?limited access.?
?Mission presence? is what the United States has in countries where there are ongoing military missions which ?lack the breadth and capability to qualify as true forward presence but nonetheless contribute to the overall US posture abroad.?
?Limited access? is the kind the United States gets through exercises, visits, and other operations.
Hence, the US global posture encompasses, by definition, not just those who are ?forward-based,? or those units that are stationed in foreign countries on a long-term basis such as troops in Korea and Japan, but also those who are ?forward-deployed,? or those who are sent overseas to conduct various kinds of deployments, exercises, or operations.
Greatest potential to compete
If, in the Cold War, US overseas presence targeted the Soviet Union and other communist and nationalist forces in the Third World, today, the US current ?global posture? is aimed at any state or non-state forces perceived to be threatening US interests.
?Terrorists? stand in the line of fire. Regional powers hostile to the United States, such as Iran and North Korea, have also been singled out. But, in light of the United States? self-declared grand strategy of preventing the rise of rivals who could threaten its preeminent status, one rising power is now clearly in its sights -- China.
For years, American officials have been divided between those who believe that China could be a ?strategic partner? to be engaged and those who believe that it is a ?strategic competitor? to be confronted militarily before it grows more powerful. Since the end of the Cold War, indications are that the latter view has prevailed.
As early as 1997, the Pentagon?s QDR had already identified China, along with Russia, as possible ?global peer competitors.? In 1999, a pivotal Pentagon think tank conducted a seminar to lay down all the likely scenarios involving China. Its conclusion: no matter what happens, China?s rise will not be ?peaceful? for the United States.
In 2000, a US Air Force-funded study argued explicitly in favor of preventing China?s rise. Also in the same year, Robert Kagan and William Kristol, two influential commentators whose ideas have evidently molded US policy, proposed that Beijing -- along with Baghdad -- be targeted for ?regime-change.?
The Project for the New American Century, a grouping whose members and proposals have since staffed and shaped the Bush administration and its policies, supported the same aims and made similar recommendations.
During the US presidential elections, George W. Bush distinguished himself from other candidates by singling out China as a ?strategic competitor.? Since then, various officials have successively warned that military modernization constitutes a direct threat to the United States.
The Pentagon?s 2006 official report to Congress on China stated: ?China?s military expansion is already such as to alter regional military balances.?
If, in 2001, the QDR was still vaguely worded, by 2006, when the next QDR was released, the assessment became more explicit: ?Of the major and emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States.?
Moving to Southeast Asia
The problem for the United States is its relatively weak presence in Asia. As a Pentagon report on China, whose conclusions have been widely echoed, warned: ?Lack of forward operating bases or cooperative allies greatly limits the range of US military responses.?
What the United States does have in terms of presence is now believed to be concentrated in the wrong place. Since the 1950s, the bulk of the US forward-presence in Asia has been in South Korea and Japan, directed toward the Soviet Union and North Korea. To address this, the United States has been seeking to expand southward -- to Southeast Asia.
By early 2002, the United States began negotiating with various governments in Southeast Asia for use of bases in the region. In 2003, then US Pacific Command chief Admiral Thomas B. Fargo stated: ?Power projection and contingency response in Southeast Asia in the future will depend on this network of US access in areas with little or no permanent American basing structure.?
Along with the plans for East Asia and Southeast Asia, the United States has established bases to the west of China, in Central Asia, with new installations in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. While it had none before the invasion of Afghanistan, by 2002 it had access to over a dozen bases in the region.
With the US forward presence northeast of China (in Japan and South Korea), the deepening cooperation with Mongolia to China?s north, and its deepening alliance with India, to China?s southwest, the United States is slowly encircling China from all sides.
It is in light of these large, sweeping changes in US strategy, its perception of threats, and its tactics, that US military objectives regarding the Philippines can be best understood.
[Herbert Docena (email@example.com) is a researcher with Focus on the Global South, a policy research institute.]