By: Khushbu Ahlawat, Research Analyst, GSDN
The Philippines and the United States (US) have announced plans to “accelerate the full implementation of the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) by agreeing to designate four new ‘Agreed Locations’ in strategic areas of the country and substantially complete projects in the existing five agreed locations. The EDCA’s primary goal is to support integrated training, exercises, and interoperability across troops. The EDCA also “grants the American military broad access to a variety of vital military bases throughout the Philippines.” This occurred during US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines on February 2, 2023 as part of a Western Pacific Mission.
“Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient and will accelerate the modernization of our combined military capabilities,” the US said in a statement. Establishing these new EDCA locations will enable faster response to humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines and other shared concerns.” “The Philippine-US Alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad,” the US statement continued. We are excited about the additional potential these new venues will provide to broaden our collaboration.”
WHAT TIES TWO MILITARIES TOGETHER?
The Philippines, a former Spanish colony that earned independence in 1946 after being controlled as an American possession for decades, is the region’s longest-treaty ally. (Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand are the others.) It is also an essential strategic partner in a region where China has been asserting its military dominance and constructing military installations on disputed South China Sea islands.
The three main components of the US-Philippine military alliance are a 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty, a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement that allowed for large-scale military exercises, and a 2014 defense agreement that allowed the US military to station troops and weapons at five different locations throughout the Philippines. The US military has also dispatched Special Operations personnel to advise counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines, where Muslim guerrillas have fought the Catholic-majority state for decades.
A TROUBLED COLONIAL HERITAGE
The Philippines used to house some of America’s largest overseas military bases. However, hosting foreign troops in the Philippines was politically delicate because many Filipinos considered it a relic of American colonialism.
After street protests and the Philippine Senate’s resolution to end America’s military presence, the US was forced to leave Subic Bay, its final facility in the country, in 1992. Subic Bay, located near the South China Sea, was once home to a significant US Navy detachment during the Cold War. The accords of 1999 and 2014 permitted the American military to rebuild its presence in the Philippines to some extent. However, when President Rodrigo Duterte entered office in 2016, he stated that he intended to stop the former and maybe revoke the latter as part of a “separation” from the US and a move towards improved relations with China.
WARMING US-PHILIPPINES RELATIONS
Mr. Duterte backtracked on his threats, and his successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has worked to repair ties with the US since entering office last year. The agreement is a significant step in that direction. It would specifically prolong the 2014 agreement by allowing Washington to post-military equipment and rotate personnel in nine Philippine military installations, up from four in the initial 10-year arrangement. The reform will allow the US to construct the country’s largest military deployment in 30 years.
WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE NEW AGREEMENT?
The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, which was extended in 2014, could have ramifications for the future of Taiwan, the island democracy near China that Beijing claims as its own. Since US Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan last summer, tensions have been building. This provocative move spurred Beijing to increase its activity in the area, including several days of live-fire training, boosting the prospect of future war. According to American officials, access to the Philippines’ northernmost islands is critical to countering China in the case of an attack on neighboring Taiwan. The country’s most populous island, Luzon, features military installations that can house American troops and combat planes.
The new pact may have ramifications in the South China Sea, which contains some of the world’s busiest trade channels. Even though an international tribunal ruled in 2016 that Beijing’s comprehensive claim to sovereignty over the sea lacked a legal foundation, China’s military development has proceeded. The Philippines is one of several Southeast Asian countries, including Indonesia and Vietnam, that want the United States to aid them in combat the buildup.
The US-funded renovation of the runway at the Philippines’ Basa Air Base began with a total cost of $25 million projected. The event was co-led by US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall and Philippine Department of National Defence Officer-in-Charge Carlito Galvez Jr. “The rehabilitation is a manifestation of our Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a key pillar of the US-Philippine alliance. The two countries’ ties are at a crossroads” Kendall added.
The development of military cooperation between the United States and the Philippines is understandable, given that they are historic security allies. Nonetheless, the Philippines should be wary of China’s financial situation. If Philippine-US defense cooperation is highly targeted, mainly if it covers the Taiwan Strait, China would undoubtedly regard it as an unfriendly act and will respond in kind. In this context, the Chinese embassy in Manila’s recent remark that Philippines-US military cooperation could “seriously harm Philippine national interests” is a clear warning to the Philippines.
The strengthening of US-Philippine defense ties, as well as the decision to push for the full implementation of EDCA, will impact US-Philippine relations and the Philippines-China and US-China great power struggle. This may harm the wider South China Sea issue and the continuing discussions on the Code of Conduct (COC) for a peaceful dispute resolution. Though the new leadership recognizes that it requires the US to secure and protect its sovereign regions, a robust relationship with China is also required for economic advancement and development. By taking such aggressive moves that directly send a strong message to China, it remains to be seen how the Marcos Jr. government will be able to manage and hedge between these two powers in order to get benefits from both, as has been the mantra of most of his Southeast Asian neighbours.