The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014 allows US forces to access, to build facilities, and position equipment, aircraft, and vessels, to designated Philippine military facilities, but not as permanent bases the way Subic, Zambales and Clark in Mabalacat, Pampanga hosted the largest US military bases in the eastern Pacific until 1991 when the Philippine Senate rejected the treaty to extend US military presence.
The EDCA is envisioned to operationalize the implementation of the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty.
The EDCA is designed to promote: Interoperability; Capacity building towards AFP modernization; Strengthening the AFP for external defense; Maritime security; Maritime domain awareness; and Humanitarian assistance and disaster response – all of which are very critical, given the geopolitical complications confronting the Indo-Pacific region.
Early this month, Malacañang announced four additional EDCA sites namely: the Camilo Osias Naval Base in Sta Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan; Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela and Balabac Island in Palawan.
Other locations included in the agreement are: Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.
In the recently concluded US-Philippines 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue Plenary Session on Promoting Regional Security at the State Department in Washington, DC, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken together with Philippine Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo and Senior Defense Undersecretary Carlito Galvez Jr. announced that the US will be allocating over $100 million to develop infrastructure at these EDCA sites.
Austin committed to “swiftly finalizing” the Philippines-US Bilateral Defense Guidelines, which outlines alliance cooperation across all operational domains, including addressing threats in space and cyberspace. Priority defense platforms will include military transport aircraft, coastal and air defense systems, unmanned aerial systems, and radars.
Also ongoing is Balikatan 2023 where 17,000 soldiers, of which 12,200 from the US, 5,400 from the Philippines and 111 from Australia are participating in the largest war games that will highlight a ‘whole-of-alliance’ defense approach that includes maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire exercises, urban and aviation operations, counterterrorism, and cyber-defense and will mobilize all military components of the navy, army, and the air force.
Other allied countries including Japan, the United Kingdom, Canada, India, France, and some ASEAN nations have been invited as observers.
Beijing has expectedly objected to these developments with its Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian accusing the Philippines of “stoking the fire” by expanding US access to Philippine military bases which may be used to interfere in China’s problem with Taiwan and anti-China agenda despite President Marcos Jr.’s statement that EDCA sites cannot be used for offensive military operations for as long as the Philippines is not attacked.
He stressed they “will not renounce the use of force and we reserve the option of taking all necessary measures” against “external interference and all separatist activities.”
He even ‘advised’ the Philippines “to unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan Independence’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the US access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait if you care genuinely about the 150,000 OFWs.”
Sounds to me more like a veiled threat.
The recent statement of the National Security Council has clarified the increased security cooperation between the Philippines and the United States is meant to develop and strengthen the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and defend the territory of the Philippines and not to contain or counter any nation in the region or to interfere in another nation’s affairs.
The Philippines has been at the receiving end of Chinese aggressive maneuvers that continue to violate territorial rights and destroy marine resources in our exclusive economic zone.
Hundreds of diplomatic protests have documented these incursions but were just brushed aside with double speak and blatant lies while gray zone operations continue to push Beijing’s expansionist agenda which is now playing out to be an escalating geopolitical power play that might spark a risky scenario that would have catastrophic repercussions to a world already stressed by aftereffects of a pandemic and economic fallout of the Ukraine war.
As the government continues to pursue the path for peace and sustaining regional stability in a rule-based international order, complementing this with a clearly defined and demonstrable defense posture with our allies is a language that Beijing might better understand.