Updated: July 01, 2013 09:37 PM GMT
The US ballistic missile submarine USS Ohio makes a recent port call at Subic Bay, a former permanent US base in Luzon (photo by Anthony Bayarong)
Environmental activists on Tuesday filed an urgent motion with the Supreme Court aimed at stopping US military exercises and port calls, as the Philippines government looks to give American forces greater access amid an ongoing territorial standoff with China.
The latest legal challenge to the US military presence in the Philippines comes after the Supreme Court issued a "writ of nature" against the US Navy in April, as a result of the USS Guardian running aground on the Tubbataha Reef, a Unesco World Heritage Site.
"The growing rotational presence in the country of US troops renders our marine protected areas highly vulnerable to destruction and degradation given the influx of military personnel, weaponry and naval and ground vessels," said Renato Reyes of the New Patriotic Alliance, one of the groups who backed Tuesday’s petition.
Under the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the US, American personnel are exempt from visa and passport requirements and the US maintains legal jurisdiction if crimes are committed by its servicemen on Philippines soil.
The US is not permitted to operate permanent bases but unlimited access to the Philippines without any clear environmental guidelines “reveals the fatal problems of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” said Reyes.
The Philippine Defense Department last week said it was looking to give the United States and Japan greater access to the country's military bases to counter a perceived rising security threat from China amid a dispute over islands in the South China Sea.
Assistant Foreign Affairs Secretary Raul Hernandez said this would be permitted if “mutually beneficial” for both countries as they “continue to talk about the modalities and the parameters for an increased rotational presence of US forces.”
Edsel Tupaz, head legal counsel of the petitioners, said that the US should pay for damages "prior to incurring any unnecessary government expenditures for the maintenance of these ports and port calls."
In January, the USS Guardian destroyed at least 2,346 sq ms of pristine and highly diverse coral ecosystems on the Tubbataha Reef. In May, a US investigation admitted fault caused by human error.