Aussie posse gunning for Gloria's foesIn December 2003, Prime Minister John Howard provoked criticism and protests around the region when he said that his country had the right to launch "pre-emptive strikes" against targets anywhere in Southeast Asia.
In July and August of the following year, Australian special forces and sailors trooped to the Philippines to hold joint training exercises with their Filipino counterparts.  Then, in October, 2005, a few months after it was reported that the Australian police were involved in "covert operations" in the country, the Australian press carried reports - subsequently denied by the government - that elite Australian troops had joined their US and Filipino counterparts in operations against alleged terrorists in the southern Philippines. 
If a Filipino had - for whatever reason - sued an Australian soldier participating in the above missions, the accused would have been treated in the Philippine justice system like any ordinary foreigner brought to court. With the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement (SOVFA) signed by Manila and Canberra last week, however, Australian troops in the country have become no ordinary mates: as with the Philippines' only other such agreement - the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, the SOVFA will accord Australian troops a different "status".
This, in essence, is what the agreement with Australia is all about. Though the agreement is expected to be presented to the public in a different light, it is basically a pact that would, to the extent negotiable, exempt Australian troops in the Philippines from being subject to the country's laws.
As Frank Stone of the US's Military Foreign Affairs office explains in a presentation posted on the Pentagon website, "status of forces" agreements (SOFAs) seek to apply the concept of the "Law of the Flag" or the idea that a country deploying military forces abroad should apply its own laws to its soldiers - and not that of the country where they are to be deployed.  This is the concept that has driven the US to negotiate a variety of such agreements with over 90 countries since 1951. 
The specific provisions of the SOVFA have not been revealed but, just like the VFA, it is expected to spell out in what cases and under what conditions Australian troops could be held legally accountable in the host country, which government will have jurisdiction over them, and who will pay for claims arising from lawsuits.
SOFAs vary because while the party deploying forces will seek to secure the maximum level of privileges for its troops in the host country, it is not always assured of getting everything it wants because host countries could - and have in fact - balked at some demands. While the US, for example, has proposed complete immunity for and jurisdiction over its troops, other governments have only been willing or are able to give only limited rights.
Contrary to how it has been portrayed in some accounts, the SOVFA is not a new security agreement of the sort that binds parties to new defense obligations; it merely governs existing ties. At the same time, however, the agreement is also not just a mere legal or judicial arrangement; its signing has political and geostrategic implications within and beyond the countries involved.
With mates like these
First, it is important to note that the two signatories to the agreement belong to the network of pro-US allies in the Pacific long described by US policy-makers and analysts as an "American lake" and which, after Europe during the Cold War, is now considered the "focus of strategic competition" by neo-conservatives. 
If being on the same side in war is to be an indication, Australia is perhaps the US's most reliable ally in the world. No other country - not even Britain - has fought side-by-side the US in all its major wars in the past century. In recent years, it sent sizeable contingents to join the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.
While many other countries have since pulled out, the Australian troops remain part of the dwindling "coalition of the willing". Home to important US military bases and installations and the site of large-scale joint military exercises, Australia has also signed on to plans for developing the US's controversial anti-ballistic missile defense system in the region.
In the network of pro-US allies around the world, Australia stands out for the role it is carving for itself in its own backyard. For his unflinching support for US foreign policy, Howard has been called the "deputy sheriff" to the "global sheriff", President George W Bush.
Having urged Parliament to support his plans for expanding Australia's role in the region, Howard has presided over what the media have observed to be the largest expansion of the Australian military in years, with the new troops intended to be deployed for overseas missions. 
Itself a former colonial ruler of neighboring Papua New Guinea, Australia has recently sent troops to East Timor and the Solomon islands, prompting concerns regarding its regional interventions. Its role in policing the region is critical to US military strategy. As the influential American neo-conservative commentator Max Boot has pointed out, "We may be the global sheriff, but we need a posse to be effective, and Australia has been a stalwart member of that self-selected assemblage." 
With the US military overstretched, Washington may find more and more reason to share - if not outsource - some tasks to its deputy in Southeast Asia. The signing of the SOVFA signals that Australia is stepping up to the plate. As US troops get bogged down in the Middle East and Central Asia and as critical interests continue to be threatened in the US's own backyard, Latin America, more and more Australian combat boots will tread alongside - if not replace - those of the Americans in the Asia-Pacific.
The Philippines under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, on the other hand, is still - despite some very public spats - perhaps the US's most dependable ally in all of Southeast Asia. While most other governments in the region have publicly distanced themselves from Washington, Manila has bucked the trend and has even intensified its military cooperation with the United States since September 11, 2001.
At no point since the closure of its military bases in the country in 1991 has the US established a more visible presence: while Thailand, another close US ally, recently rejected an offer by the US to send troops to its violence-wracked southern provinces, between 300-500 US special forces have been indefinitely stationed in Mindanao since early 2002. Apart from them, a steady stream of US troops take part in up to 24 exercises held all year round in various places in the country. 
Under the Mutual Logistics Servicing Agreement with the US signed in 2001, the US is permitted to use military facilities and installations all over the country. Though officials deny that bases have been re-established in the country, the Philippines is listed as hosting "cooperative security locations" - a category of bases - by the Overseas Basing Commission, an official body tasked to review the US's basing abroad. 
Government officials and analysts suggest that there's nothing special with the SOVFA since the Philippines plans to sign similar agreements with Association of Southeast Asian countries. The ones with the US and Australia will just be one of many. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Philippines will actually grant non-US allied countries the same privileges as the ones it gives to fellow US allies.
The Pacific posse
If ratified, the SOVFA will further tighten the links between two pro-US allies in the region. By guaranteeing Australia that its troops will be well taken care of in the country, the SOVFA will usher in more Australian military deployments to the Philippines - whether for military exercises or for the kind of missions described by US special forces themselves as "counter-insurgency" or "unconventional warfare" operations in the southern Philippines. Such joint missions among allies will enhance what the military calls "inter-operability" as they share military doctrine, information, techniques and equipment.
In bringing together two close allies in the southwestern rim of the Pacific, the SOVFA will strengthen the chains of the pro-US bloc in the region and reinforce what one analyst calls the "new Pacific wall" . This wall already spans South Korea and Japan to the north, Mongolia to the northwest, Guam in the center and Thailand and Singapore further west.
Incidentally, just six weeks before the signing of the SOVFA, Australia also inked what a report described as a "historic" security pact with Japan, a country that hosts over 90 US military bases and facilities housing over 30,000 US troops.  Australia had also earlier joined Japan and the US in forming the so-called Trilateral Security Dialogue in 2002.
While the threat of "terrorism" is often invoked to explain the growing cooperation between allies in the region, this explanation would only be accurate to the extent that so-called "Islamic terrorists" are actually seen as threatening larger and enduring security interests. This does not appear to be the case with groups such as the Abu Sayyaf - the supposed target of US military action in the Philippines - which, despite repeated projections to the contrary, arguably does not have the capacity to be considered a primary threat to US national security.
In contrast, the US's own 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review, widely seen as articulating official government thinking, has unequivocally identified China as having "the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States" . It is China which the new Pacific wall surrounds.
Without a common enemy
And, as with all alliances, it is on this, on the existence of a perceived common threat, where the pro-US bloc in the region could flounder. While the US under Bush, after vacillating for years on whether to walk the path of engagement or containment, may have now positively identified China as its potential enemy, the Philippines has not - and may not.
It is telling that just as Arroyo was inviting Howard to sign the SOVFA, Filipino generals were holding official talks with Chinese security officials in Manila and getting pledges of US$1.2 million in military engineering equipment from Beijing  - a pittance compared to the $96 million they stand to get from the US this year,  far from enough to tip the scale of allegiances for now.
But with exports to China growing five-fold between 2001 and 2005 and with investments from China recording a dramatic 12,000% increase between 2001 and 2006,  the Philippines' attitude toward its neighbor is now more ambiguous - if not more conciliatory - compared with the time just a decade ago when Manila had a diplomatic row with Beijing over the Spratly Islands.
Whether the Philippines' interests will be served more by being on the side of the US and Australia in a potential confrontation with China is expected to weigh heavily on the minds of the Philippine Senate as its members begin to debate whether or not to ratify the SOVFA.
For it is not China that is on Filipino leaders' minds. Arroyo herself has not been shy in saying that the benefits of closer ties with the mates from Down Under - including 28 high-speed gunboats and about $3.28 million in inducements for signing - will be unleashed on alleged communist rebels and Moro separatists in the south. 
Indeed, while the Philippine military consistently claims that the subjects of their foreign-assisted offensives in Mindanao are "al-Qaeda linked" members, it has repeatedly turned out that they have actually been targeting members of a separatist movement that forged a peace agreement with the government in 1996.
Defense Minister Brendan Nelson for his part has stated that Australia will support the Philippine Defense Reform Program,  known to be the partly US-drafted and US-funded long-term master-plan of the new drive to finally eradicate the state's internal enemies and which is blamed for the current spate of political killings and other human-rights violations. For now, as it has been for a long time, the enemy in the minds of the Philippine ruling class and security establishment is within; the alliance, a commercial transaction with the highest bidder.
1. "Defense Strengthens Counter-Terrorism Cooperation with the Philippines," Australian Government Department of Defense media release, July 4, 2004; "Australia, Philippines to hold navy exercises," Agence France Press, August 19, 2004.
2. Charles Miranda, "Aussies target Philippines terror," The Daily Telegraph, June 20, 2005; "DFA says Aussie anti-terror forces in RP covered by "agreements," The Philippine Star, June 22, 2005; "Elite Australian troops join hunt for JI terrorists in RP," October 11, 2005; Greg Sheridan, "SAS in hunt for Asia's terrorists," The Australian, October 14, 2006.
3. Notes from a presentation delivered by Frank Stone, director of Military Foreign Affairs Office, April 10, 2002, Orlando, Florida.
4. "Status of Forces Agreements."
5. Project for the New American Century, Rebuilding America's Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century, September 2000.
6. Phil Mercer, "Australia beefs up military for action overseas," Voice of America, August 24, 2006; Esther Pan, "Australia's Security role in the Pacific," Council on Foreign Relations, June 18, 2006.
7. Max Boot, "Howard's end: Australia's prime minister no longer connects with voters," Weekly Standard, June 4, 2007.
8. "Unconventional warfare: Are US special forces engaged in an 'offensive war' in the Philippines?" Focus on the Global South special report, January 2007.
9. Overseas Basing Commission, report to the president and Congress, August 15, 2005.
10. Conn Hallinan, "The new Pacific wall," (Silver City, NM and Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, May 30, 2007.)
11. "Howard signs historic security pact with Japan," ABC News Online, March 13, 2007.
12. Office of the Secretary of Defense (United States), Quadrennial Defense Review 2006, February 6, 2006; see also Office of the Secretary of Defense, "Military power of the People's Republic of China 2006: Annual Report to Congress."
13. AHN, "Philippine military to receive $1.2 million in equipment from China," May 27, 2007.
14. Philippines Center for Defense Information.
15. National Statistics Office (Philippines), "Direction of trade: 2001 to 2005"; Philippine Board of Investments, "Total FDI by country, 2001 and 2006."
16. Phil Mercer, "Australia, Philippines sign landmark security pact," May 31, 2007, Voice of America; AP, "RP Australia sign security pact allowing joint counterterrorism," May 31, 2007. "Defense official said these will be used against Moro and communist leaders," Christine Avendano, "RP-Aussie war games expected next year," PDI, May 30, 2007.
17. Media release of the Australian Embassy in the Philippines, "Australia and the Philippines strengthen defense ties."
Herbert Docena ([email protected]) is a Manila-based researcher with Focus on the Global South (www.focusweb.org), an international policy research and advocacy institute.