The Philippines Senate ratified a sensitive military pact with Australia overnight that lays out rules for visiting troops, in a move politicians said would improve regional security.
The agreement was first signed in 2007 but remained in legislative limbo amid political sensitivities, as the country’s constitution explicitly bans the long-term stationing of foreign forces on its territory.
Its endorsement by the Senate five years on is seen by some observers as a bid to get Australia’s backing in Manila’s row with China over South China Sea islands.
Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile said the body passed a resolution endorsing the treaty 17-1 with no abstentions, putting it into force after a four-year debate in the Philippines.
“Concurrence with the ratification… will not only pave the way for us to improve our defence mechanisms, it will also solidify our decades-old relationship with Australia,” he said in a press release.
President Benigno Aquino’s spokesman Edwin Lacierda hailed the senate vote.
“The Senate… has taken an important step in enhancing our national and regional security by ratifying the Status of Visiting Forces Agreement between Australia and the Philippines,” he said in a statement.
The two countries had earlier signed a preliminary agreement on defence and military cooperation in 1995.
The latest pact would, among other things, subject visiting soldiers to the jurisdiction of the host country should they commit acts that are illegal in the host country but not in the sending country.
The Philippines signed a similar pact in 1998 with its traditional military ally the United States.
Under the pact small numbers of US military advisers have been deployed in the southern Philippines for the past decade to help train Philippine forces fighting Islamic militants.
The lone holdout against the signing, Senator Joker Arroyo, accused the government of putting pressure on the senators to ratify the pact to get Australian backing in Manila’s ongoing row with China over the resource-rich Scarborough Shoal.
“Although the agreement is not a defence pact, its symbolism cannot be lost on China. Let us not grab at straws,” Senator Arroyo said in a statement after the vote.