Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Manila Set To Open Base For Australia

The Philippines and Australia will soon sign a security pact allowing Australian troops to be stationed in the South-east Asian nation, the Philippine defence minister said. Avelino Cruz, who is in Malaysia to attend a meeting of South-east Asian defence ministers, said the Philippines hoped to sign similar agreements with other South-east Asian nations to strengthen the battle against terrorism. “I have talked to most of the defence ministers in Asean and I have broached to them the idea of a status of forces agreement in order that we can conduct joint exercises against terrorism or for disaster response,” Cruz said. Annual meetings of defence ministers planned by the 10-country Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) would be a tremendous boost in helping to hammer out such agreements, he added.
Avelino Cruz
“If Asean were a chariot, the defence ministers’ meetings will be an additional stallion to push it forward,” Cruz said. A status of forces agreement (Sofa) with Australia would allow thousands of Australian soldiers to participate in annual military exercises with the United States. “With respect to Australia, the negotiating partners have met twice, and I’ve seen the almost final draft and the issues are easily surmountable, and I think probably in a month or so that should be completed and signed and executed,” Cruz said. Canberra, which has shown deep concern over the activities of Islamic militants in the southern Philippines since the 2002 Bali bombing, already provides training for about 60 Philippine soldiers a year in Australia. A handful of Australian police officers is based in the Philippines to train counterparts in bomb-investigation methods. Cruz said the Philippines also hoped to sign similar agreements with Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. “The next step will be, after I send them a formal letter, to constitute negotiating panels for those Asean members who are keen to enter into a SOFA with the Philippines,” he added. The Philippines will launch a new security pact with the United States on May 24 to jointly fight militants, bird flu, piracy, natural disasters and other threats, Cruz said. The United States, a former colonial ruler of the South-east Asian country, has been a major source of military aid for the poorly funded Philippine armed forces, in the form of training and hardware such as rifles, gunboats and helicopters. Washington has poured in more than $300m in security assistance since 2000. The two countries had agreed to create a legal framework for cooperation on issues outside a defence treaty that dates to the 1950s, said Cruz, who was President Arroyo’s lawyer before she named him defence secretary in August 2004.