Manila - Asia's "weakest link" in the war against terror is ready to redress the situation in a big way - by allowing troops from Australia and several Asean countries to enter the Philippines and train Filipinos in fighting terrorism. While the move will be welcomed abroad, there is a possibility that it may provoke a domestic backlash.
Defence Secretary Avelino Cruz told reporters on Oct 18 that the Philippines was studying a draft accord with Australia and similar talks were underway with Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia and other countries.
If the talks bear fruits, the Philippines would, in effect, be forming a web of agreements that would usher in a new security arrangement in Asia.
The Philippines currently has such a status-of-forces agreement (SOFA) only with the United States. The SOFA, which defines the legal status of foreign troops in the country, has allowed Washington to deploy special forces in southern Mindanao to train and arm Filipino troops battling militants linked to the Al-Qaeda.
"Only through cooperation of all these countries can we have an effective plan against terrorism," Mr Cruz said at a press conference with visiting Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill.
"We intend to negotiate and conclude a status of forces agreement with all the members of the Asean," Mr Cruz said.
Philippine officials said a SOFA with Australia clearing the way for joint training programmes on counter-terrorism and intelligence-sharing might be signed by next month.
However, any new SOFA agreement signed must be ratified by the Philippine Senate before it can be implemented.
Mr Hill said that while Australia had been providing limited counter-terrorism training to Philippine security forces, his government was keen to play a greater role.
"That terrorist threat is a very real one to Australia now. We feel the possibility of terrorists moving into the southern Philippines. We, therefore, have a real and vested interest in working with the Philippinesto overcome that threat," Mr Hill added.
The Philippine government's announcement that it was planning to sign more SOFAs drew immediate criticisms from militant lawmakers in the House of Representatives. They warned that such an arrangement could make the Philippines more vulnerable to foreign intervention.
Representative Loretta Ann Rosales said that granting Australia the right to bring in troops and train Filipino soldiers in counter-terrorism was "the last thing this country needs".
Ms Rosales, chair of the House committee on human rights, noted that the Philippine Constitution bans foreign troops from operating in the country. The presence of Australian soldiers can also act as a "magnet to attract foreign attacks", she added.
Lawmaker Rafael Mariano said: "Under the guise of fighting terror, the Arroyo government continuously tramples on (our) sovereignty."
* Aussie, Asean troops' entry in the works (Philippine Daily Inquirer, Oct 19)