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US transparency on military flights urged as House investigation looms

A POLITICAL analyst on Tuesday urged the US government to be more transparent about its military business in the Philippines after lawmakers questioned “covert” flights involving American military aircraft in Philippine airspace.

“For transparency and equity, the landing of US military planes in Philippine territories should also be reported to the public,” Chester B. Cabalza, founding president of Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“There could be limitations in the message so as not to trigger any mishap in the tense region, even if this is done in good faith for defense and security cooperation.”

Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos on Sunday urged the government to investigate the presence of US military planes in the country.

On July 8, a C-17 that took off from Tokyo the night before with flight code RCH323 was spotted north of Busuanga Island past 10 a.m., she said.

The plane was off the radar until late afternoon when it appeared again in the same vicinity flying toward Polillo Island before leaving the Philippine territory past 6 p.m., she added.

In a separate statement last week, Ms. Marcos said a similar military plane landed in Manila, but US flight planners had failed to coordinate with ground handlers at Manila’s international airport.

The aircraft was in the Philippines to support a bilateral military exercise, she said on July 7, citing a letter from US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson the day before.

The plane stopped at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport before going to its final destination in Palawan to comply with Philippine Customs and Immigration requirements, Ms. Marcos said.

But due to a clerical error, some of the information provided by the US government for the flight clearance was incorrect. The US Embassy admitted that while the aircraft had an approved diplomatic clearance from the Department of Foreign Affairs, the US flight planners did not coordinate in advance with the NAIA ground handlers and were, in fact, unfamiliar with the airport, she said.

“This lack of coordination, in turn, led to the parking of the aircraft in the wrong spot, delays in ground servicing and subsequent delays in the completion of customs and immigration processes,” she added.

“We can confirm that Senator Marcos’ press release accurately conveyed the substance of Ambassador Carlson’s letter on the issue,” US Embassy Press Attaché Kanishka Gangopadhyay said in a Viber message on Tuesday.

“The embassy always coordinates with the Philippine government to receive diplomatic clearance for all US government aircraft that enter the Philippines,” he added.

The first C-17 aircraft with flight code MC244/RCH244 landed in Manila at 6:03 a.m. on July 7 after leaving Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, Ms. Marcos earlier said, citing global flight tracker AirNav Systems.

It then flew to Palawan before 1 p.m. and headed for Yokota Air Base in the city of Fussa, Japan later in the afternoon, she added. 

Although the plane’s call signal was repeatedly out of coverage during its journey, flight tracker Flightradar24 recorded its departure from Palawan shortly before 4 p.m., Manila time, and its arrival at Yokota Air Base four-and-a-half hours later, the senator said.

The flight route from Palawan showed the plane passing over Pampanga, Cagayan and off the eastern coasts of Batanes and Taiwan before it landed at Yokota Air Base, Ms. Marcos added.

Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher studying at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan, said the government should know the difference between “being given fish instead of being taught how to fish.”

“It’s one thing to actually help us build our full hardware and upgrade our personnel/security doctrines, it’s another thing to essentially allow American boots and hardware to come back here,” he said via Messenger chat.

Several congressmen have filed a resolution seeking to investigate the US flights.

Mr. Cabalza said the US should not be exempted from investigation of its intentions. “The same is true with how we expose Chinese misbehavior in the West Philippine Sea including their swarming tactics and grey zone strategy,” he added.

The Philippines this year gave the US wider access to its military bases under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Joint patrols between the Philippines and US in the South China Sea might begin later this year, Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez said in May, days after Washington reiterated its commitment to defend the Philippines from an attack at sea. — Beatriz Marie D. Cruz

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