MANILA, Philippines —While the United States’ plan to expand coverage of its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines is seen as Washington’s “way of being a credible ally,” analysts point out the move may also reflect “security anxiety” over regional giant China.
They said the Philippines must be clear on what it wants from engagements with both the US and China.
The announcement was made during US Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to the Philippines earlier last week. According to her office, the program will be expanding with more EDCA locations “identified.” EDCA allows the US military use of facilities in Philippine military bases and camps.
“The US investments on additional EDCA sites might be construed as containment and security anxiety against China but it is seen as recommitment to foster the alliance between the Philippines and United States,” Chester Cabalza, founder and president of International Development and Security Cooperation, told Philstar.com.
The EDCA gives legal basis for service members of the US and the Philippines to participate in security cooperation exercises, joint and combined military training, and humanitarian efforts. This complements the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.
There are currently five military sites identified under the EDCA: Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Basa Air Base in Pampanga.
More support to come?
Since the agreement was inked in 2014, Washington has allocated over $82 million for its implementation and a senior administration official said more funding may be on the way. This will help back 21 projects of the United States, all of which will be completed by Philippine firms.
“We’re again engaged with our Philippine counterparts through our Department of Defense and obviously, this needs to be a mutual decision so we’re working on expanding the program, but the precise number of locations and where those locations will be is not for now,” a senior administration official told reporters in a background briefing on Harris’ visit.
The Marcos administration is already pursuing warmer ties with the US, compared with the previous administration’s pivot to China, with a foreign policy of being a “friend to all and enemy to none.”
Julio Amador, founder and CEO of Amador Research Services, noted that “it should be expected [the US] will show more efforts to help its less capable ally build up its capabilities to respond to external security threats.”
“Earlier, the US has also promised to increase its foreign military financing to Manila; the question is, how will the [Armed Forces of the Philippines] and the [Department of National Defense] maximize this assistance? How will they use this to improve military capabilities?,” Amador told Philstar.com last week.
However, the Asia Pacific Research Network warned that the announcement of a $100-million foreign military financing comes “amid the continued deterioration of the human rights situation in the country.”
“It is really hard to believe that the US and Harris are oblivious to the continuing rights violations by the Marcos government,” APRN Board of Convenors Chairperson Azra Sayeed said in a statement. “Apparently, they are willing to turn a blind eye to these abuses for the sake of securing their interests in the country and the region.”
Local fishers’ group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) separately raised concern that US involvement in the country would further provoke China. APRN also warned that Washington’s military financing may be “warmongering”, which could threaten peace and security in the region.
Harris during her visit to Palawan reiterated US’ promise to back its longest treaty ally in Asia and former colony in case of armed attacks.
Test of alliances?
However, analysts have pointed out that talks on WPS issues should also be complemented with stronger alliances, aside from improved military capability. An independent foreign policy means that the Philippines’ relationship with one country should not affect another.
“What this simply means is that the Philippines has the capacity to choose its ally, friends, or partners. For as long as it has that agency, then it is independent,” Amador said.
“Moving forward, the Philippines should be clearer about what it expects from Washington, D.C. Stand with it when interests and principles converge, or stand up to it if it feels that its ally does not seriously give consideration its concerns.”
Cabalza also said the Philippines should wait and see before moving to set policy on US and China relations.
“Marcos Jr. must listen to what the US and China want before a potent independent foreign policy will be carved and implemented,” he said.
“No matter what happens in the power competition of China and US, our alliance with Washington will remain. It will be tested as EDCA becomes the new instrument of our alliance with the US.”