This week the Philippines will restart its Marine Corps bilateral exercises, called “Kamandag,” with the United States, its only military ally and former colonial master.

The drill used to be called “Phiblex” but the two militaries were forced to change its name after President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the armed forces to stop training activities with the United States.

Duterte had said China was getting irritated with annual PH-US
drills in the country’s western seaboard, particularly the Zambales beaches just opposite Scarborough Shoal which it had seized control in 2012.

The defense and military establishments did what it was told and ceased amphibious landing exercises with the US Marine Corps as well as the ship-to-shore operations, a capability it needed as an archipelagic state. It even moved the exercises somewhere else, far from Zambales and Ternate in Cavite, as both fronted the West Philippines Sea.

Later the Marines-led exercises changed its name to Kamandag or “Kaagapay ng mga Mandirigma sa Dagat” only to please Duterte who wanted to scrap Phiblex — an amphibious landing and live-fire exercises.

It was cancelled last year after Duterte directed the Department of Foreign Affairs to send a letter to the US embassy in Manila to notify the Americans that the Philippines intended to abrogate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a legal framework for allowing the US military to hold exercises and training in the Philippines.

The coronavirus outbreak was only a secondary reason for not holding Kamandag.

After Duterte’s intention to scrap the VFA, the US had actually declined to hold two other annual large-scale drills — the annual combined and joint “Balikatan” and the Army-led exercises, “Salaknib,” an Ilocano word for shield.

This year, both the “Balikatan” and “Salaknib” resumed. The 5th iteration of “Kamandag” this week will fully restore all large-scale training conventional warfare actions, all crucial components of the military alliance as tensions in the disputed South China Sea continue to rise.

It seemed Duterte could not do anything to stop the activities as both the defense and foreign affairs departments have been sliding toward Washington, isolating the president who has remained loyal to China.

But he has to play along with the military or risk a revolt and a political backlash from its increasingly pro-US and anti-China public.

The bilateral military drills are also evolving with Australian and Japanese troops taking part in Balikatan, transforming it to a multilateral activity. Japanese Self-Defense Forces will see action for the first time in Kamandag drills.

There is actually nothing wrong for Australian and Japanese troops to join the annual bilateral drills with the Americans under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).

Australia has a similar Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the Philippines, a better version, in fact, than the American. Canberra has been taking part in numerous Army and Marines small-unit cross-training exercises with local troops, providing riverine boats for counter-terrorism operations.

The Philippines is also set to award an Australian company a contract to build six Offshore Patrol Vessels (OPVs), which will be constructed in a Cebu shipyard, to boost the maritime domain awareness capability of the Philippine Navy.

But Japanese participation is problematic.

The Philippines has no VFA with Japan. Japanese diplomats and defense officials are still exploring the idea of signing a VFA as security relations between the two countries expanded under the late President Benigno Aquino III.

Japan donated five second-hand, fixed-wing surveillance planes which the military has used to patrol the West Philippine Sea. It has also transferred P50 billion worth of helicopter spare parts and air frame to extend the shelf life of its American-made second-hand Bell utility helicopters, the workhorse of the Philippine Air Force.

It has also built 10 coastal patrol vessels for the Philippine Coast Guard and is about to install a powerful air defense radar in Palawan to detect incoming hostile aircraft 400 miles away from the west, in the South China Sea. It could also monitor and detect Chinese air force activities in the Spratlys, some 200 to 200 miles away.

In the past, Japan sent a token force of 100 soldiers to join “Balikatan” exercises. A Japanese soldier even died during an exercise in a vehicular accident in Subic a few years ago.

Full Japanese participation in annual drills in the Philippines is a clear violation of the 1987 Constitution, which prohibits the presence of foreign troops in the country unless allowed by a treaty.

The US is protected by the 1951 MDT, which was reinforced by the 1998 VFA. The latter operationalized the mother treaty. Australia has the 2012 SOVFA.

Since early 2000, under the administration of then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the government has been violating the spirit of the 1987 Constitution by allowing new military activities under the MDT and VFA that could be outside its scope and coverage.

For instance, the MDT only allows conventional military activities for the mutual defense of the country against external attacks, rehearsing variations of the old Orange Plan, a Cold War relic.

But when the United States launched its global war on terror in the aftermath of the 9-11 attack in New York and Washington, the Philippines became the second front in its war against Islamist militants, first with the al Qaeda, which it believed masterminded the World Trade Center attack.

More than 1,000 US Special Forces were deployed to Zamboanga City, Marawi City, and later in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi to train and advise local troops on how to fight the Abu Sayyaf.

The US denied it was actively involved in hunting down the Abu Sayyaf Group, limiting their involvement to technical intelligence by flying drones and installing five coast watch radar stations to monitor small but fast-moving seacraft crisscrossing the porous maritime borders in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

The Philippines got nearly $100 million in US aid through the Southeast Asia Maritime Initiative under the administration of then-president Barack Obama.

The US Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)-Philippines was illegal but Arroyo allowed Washington to hide under the “Balikatan” exercises. And she was rewarded by then-president George W. Bush when the Philippines was designated a major non-NATO ally in 2003.

It was only legalized a few years later when the US and the Philippines signed an agreement expanding the alliance through the Security Engagement Board (SEB), a mechanism that allows the MDT to take part in traditional non-military activities, like counter terrorism (CT) and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) operations.

Since the middle of the 2000, the Philippines and its ally have been holding joint Mutual Defense Board (MDB) and Security Engagement Board (SEB) annual meetings to plan joint and combined military and non-military activities. There are about 300 bilateral activities under the alliance.

Japan’s illegal participation in Balikatan was justified by the non-military activities under CT and HADR, but a VFA with Tokyo is still needed to legalize Japanese participation.

Increased participation from Japan and Australia would be expected in the years ahead as the US steps up its cooperation and coordination in its big power allies Australia, India and Japan under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which had its first in-person leaders’ summit in Washington last week.

In fact, the US has announced it was helping Australia with its technology to develop and deploy a nuclear-powered strategic submarine by 2040, which made some neighbors in Southeast Asia nervous.

The ever-supportive Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin backed the alliance among the United States, United Kingdom and Australia as well as the deployment of nuclear submarines.

But before the Philippines can expand its military alliance with other allies in the region — Australia, Japan, Singapore, Vietnam and even those outside the region like France, Germany and the United Kingdom — it has to look into the legal obstacles that could prevent the country from fully cooperating with these states.

Delfin Lorenzana, in a visit to the United States early this month, has called on its ally and former colonial master to review and perhaps revise the MDT to keep it abreast with the evolving geopolitical landscape in the region and address China’s gray zone tactics.

The defense secretary also called on the US to stop the practice of transferring old military equipment — aircraft and vessels — to the Philippines if it wanted its oldest ally in the region to share the burden in keeping the region safe, secured and progressive.

But before the Philippines can do that it should look within its own legal structures to free itself of barriers to full cooperation with allies.

It could also look at improving the MDT to remove provisions that allow vague interpretations on the obligations of both allies, but it must also overhaul the 1987 Constitution.

The constitution is not written in stone. It can be revised by amending it piece by piece without touching the entire charter. For starters, the clause prohibiting foreign troops on the country’s soil should be removed.

The framers of the 1987 Constitution had in mind the strong US influence on the country’s political and economic policies at that time it was writing the charter.

There were US bases in Clark and Subic. China was still not in equation and terrorism was not a big burden to domestic security.

Japan and South Korea’s sovereignty did not diminish by hosting large US bases and they were even paying for their upkeep, unlike in the Philippines in the early 1990s when the US had to pay $200 million annual rent.

Germany, Spain, Turkey and the United Kingdom had no problem hosting US bases, too. So why would the Philippines be concerned?

The US is moving away from keeping military bases. Apart from the costs, these are sitting targets to its enemies’ medium-range and long-range ballistic missiles.

The new US integrated deterrence strategy unveiled by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austiin in Singapore in July called for spreading out US forces in the region, building logistics hubs in many countries and rotating its forces in the region through military exercises, a smart prepositioning of forces in the Indo-Pacific area.

The US already has five bases in the Philippines under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Before Duterte came to power, he entertained the idea of seeking access to non-military airfields to launch drones monitoring the South China Sea as well as the Taiwan Straits.

But to allow Australia and Japan more leeway to train and exercise, it has to revisit the constitution. It has to learn from other countries in the region which have no constitutional limitations.

Vietnam is free to hold drills with any country it chooses. The Philippines will have a freer option to exercise with countries it wants without a constitution tying it hands.

It will not violate its own laws and skirt the constitution. Remove the constitutional barrier now.