By Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD
Defense Department (DND) Officer-in-Charge Jose Faustino Jr. has announced the construction of five additional American military facilities in Philippine bases across Luzon to boost the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Locations of these new facilities have been identified: two in Cagayan and one each in Isabela, Palawan, and Zambales.
The original five facilities built and being further developed are in Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Airpot in Cagayan de Oro, and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan, Cebu.
US Ambassador to the Philippines, Mary Kay Carlson, also announced the plan of Washington, DC to provide Manila $70 million worth of military assistance to the Philippines in the next two years to implement EDCA under the administration of President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr.
To formally launch the construction of new EDCA sites, US Vice President Kamala Harris is arriving in Manila tomorrow from her trip to Thailand after attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit.
Harris is scheduled to visit Puerto Princesa, Palawan on Tuesday where an EDCA facility is built facing the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Though Faustino has strongly stressed that EDCA sites are primarily earmarked for Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Response facilities, training facilities, warehouses and operation centers, these areas are some of the country’s top strategic locations that can effectively facilitate US military activities in major flash points of armed conflicts in Asia, particularly in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Straits and the Korean Peninsula.
Building American military facilities in Philippine territories amid worsening geopolitical rivalry between the US and China also raises the risks of the Philippines getting inevitably involved in the event of military conflicts between these two competing major powers.
Signed on April 28, 2014, EDCA aims to complement the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that came into force on May 27, 1999.
Both EDCA and the VFA are supplementary military agreements aimed to implement the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, the legal foundation of Philippine-American security alliance described as one the longest military alliances in the world.
The MDT makes the US the only military ally of the Philippines. The US, on the other hand, acknowledges the Philippines as the its oldest security ally in Asia.
Operationalizing the MDT, EDCA’s lofty goal is to support American strategic mission of maintaining peace and security in the Indo-Pacific region by assisting the Philippines in building national military capacities and interoperability with American troops in the area of maritime security, maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, search and rescue operations, as well as counter-terrorism.
Thus, there are also high expectations in Manila that EDCA can also contribute to the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
Tactically, EDCA provides the US military strong operational access to Philippine territories to pre-position, store and maintain American defense technologies, security supplies, military equipment, and other logistical materiel needed to reinforce various types of American military activities not only in the Philippines but also in the wider Indo-Pacific region.
With EDCA, the US can station on rotational basis some American troops, warships, and fighter planes in AFP bases.
In fact, EDCA is a creative measure of the US armed forces to maintain its presence in the Philippines without a permanent military basing arrangement being prohibited by the 1987 Philippine Constitution.
In 2016, the Philippine Supreme Court declared EDCA as constitutional.
As such, EDCA has become an integral part of the American network of military access arrangements in Asia aiming to assert American global military leadership in the 21st century.
EDCA also contributes to the strengthening of the Pentagon’s web of military treaty alliances in Asia involving Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Thailand, not to mention Taiwan.
Beijing, however, expresses tremendous security anxieties that EDCA sites hosting US military facilities in the Philippines are discreetly targeting China meant to deter this growing Asian power from its persistent assertion of sovereignties in Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
There is also a prevailing view in the Chinese government that EDCA and US alliances in Asia intend to strategically contain China.
As early as 2014 at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), which coincided with the year EDCA was signed, President Xi Jinping lambasted the American-centered “hub-and-spokes” alliance system in Asia, describing it as the emblem of “anachronistic “Cold War security structure” where “some big powers pursue security as a zero-sum game and keep strengthening military alliances in the region while excluding the common interests of other countries.”
Xi also criticized the US alliance system where EDCA is situated as the “Achilles heel” of “constructive efforts towards building a more sustainable, inclusive and win-win regional security order; the primary obstacle to a peaceful Asia.”
Some Southeast Asian countries have also expressed apprehensions that the strengthening of American alliances in Asia with the increasing military presence in the Philippines through EDCA can foment greater geopolitical rivalries among competing major powers that can exacerbate regional security tensions leading to regional instabilities.
For example, when the US declared the formation of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, US alliance system) in September 2021, Southeast Asian countries responded with serious apprehensions.
Indonesia, the de-facto leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), warned that AUKUS can intensify power projections in Asia, making the region as the fulcrum of major power competition.
Malaysia also expressed wariness that AUKUS can also trigger an Asian arms race.
Singapore conveyed its neutral position but the Philippines welcomed AUKUS as a counter balance to China’s growing power in Asia.
Indeed, EDCA is an essential component of American alliances in Asia aiming to demonstrate to the whole world that the US is a resident Indo-Pacific power.
The US regards the Indo-Pacific as vital to American security and prosperity.
The US Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February 2022 candidly declares that the US is determined to strengthen its “long-term position in and commitment to the Indo-Pacific” by focusing “on every corner of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands.”
This Strategy also asserts American determination to counter mounting challenges from the People’s Republic of China, to wit:
“This intensifying American focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC. The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.
“The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific.
“From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior.”
There is a clarity of American interests in implementing EDCA: to support the assertion of American global military leadership as the world’s foremost superpower and to counter all security threats from China as a challenger to American supremacy, particularly in the Taiwan Straits, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.
Does the Philippine government under President Marcos Jr. rally behind the US to advance these interests?
Will EDCA really pursue Philippine national security interests?
It is imperative for the Philippine government to really conduct a serious re-examination and re-definition of Philippine national security interests in the light of the evolving international and regional security landscape in the 21st century.
During the cold war, the Philippine government regarded its national interests as identical with the US.
In the aftermath of the cold war, the Philippines terminated the Military Bases Agreement in 1991 because of the post-cold war security situation leading to a redefinition of Philippine national interests by forging closer identification with the regional interest of Southeast Asian neighbors.
China’s occupation of the Mischief Reef in 1995 convinced the Philippine government to accommodate the return of the US by ratifying the VFA in 1999, especially in the context of the botched AFP modernization program.
China’s reclamation activities that began in 2013 in seven geographic features within the Kalayaan Island Group also compelled the Philippine government to sign the EDCA in 2014.
But increased US military facilities in the Philippines through EDCA can escalate the worsening US-China major power rivalry.
Keeping the American troops in Philippine territories even on rotational basis can raise the risk of dragging the Philippines in an armed conflict that it wants to avoid.
US military facilities in key strategic locations of the Philippines can also raise the possibility of the Philippines as a military target of American adversaries.
As candidly warned by a columnist and strategic analyst Ricardo Saludo, former head of the Presidential Management Staff under the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, EDCA can weaponize the Philippines and wreck us.
If not handled astutely in accordance with clearly defined Philippine national security interests rather than parochial sectoral interests, EDCA can become our country’s source of security risk instead of a security provider under the Marcos Jr administration.
The author is the President of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies, Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research and member of the Board of Directors of the China Southeast Asian Research Center on the South China Sea.