THE United States and the Philippines have designated four more additional locations for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), as both countries agreed to accelerate the full implementation of the agreement housing American troops and their equipment in Philippine military camps in strategic areas of the country.
The plans to expand America’s military presence in the Southeast Asian nation were announced amid Washington’s efforts to deter China’s increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.
The designation of four additional sites under EDCA was announced on Thursday after visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III held separate meetings with officials, including President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo.
“The addition of these new EDCA locations will allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges,” the US and the Philippines said in a statement issued by the two countries.
“The EDCA is a key pillar of the US-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training, exercises, and interoperability between our forces. Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities,” it added.
The designation of four additional locations will bring to a total number of nine the sites that will be hosting rotating US forces and their equipment under the EDCA, which was signed by the US and the Philippines in 2014, partly to counter China in the West Philippine Sea and ensure the availability of American troops to assist the Philippines in responding to effects of natural calamities.
Previously, both countries had designated five locations for EDCA: the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, which is closest to the Kalayaan Island Group; Basa Air Base in Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, the country’s largest military camp; Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu in the Visayas and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao.
Two months ago, the Philippine military disclosed that the US has identified and asked for five additional locations for EDCA—one site each in Palawan, Zambales and Isabela and two sites in Cagayan.
As both countries have agreed to accelerate full implementation of the 2014 agreement, Thursday’s statement said the US has allocated more than $82 million for “infrastructure investments” at the existing five ECDA sites, and these investments are “supporting economic growth and job creation in local Philippine communities.”
“The United States and the Philippines have committed to move quickly in agreeing to the necessary plans and investments for the new and existing EDCA locations,” the statement said.
‘Not permanent basing’
At a news briefing held by Galvez and Austin, the US defense secretary made it clear that the US was “not seeking a permanent basing” in the Philippines through the EDCA, instead they were looking at access and the opportunity for the US to increase its training activities with the Philippines.
“It’s about having the ability to respond in a more collective fashion . . . so this is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability,” Austin explained.
Although four additional sites have been designated, Galvez refused to identify their new locations, saying they still have to complete consultations with local officials who have jurisdiction over the sites.
Before the news briefing, Galvez and Austin met and discussed how the US and the Philippines could make their alliance more robust.
“We talked about enhancing our mutual defense posture and strengthening our commitments under our Mutual Defense Treaty,” Austin said, referring to the 1951 treaty between Washington and Manila.
“President Biden has made clear America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is iron clad, our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he added.
The US defense secretary affirmed the commitment, saying the “Mutual Defense Treaty applies to armed attacks on either of our armed forces, public vessels or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea.”
In the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia and a key front in the US battle against terrorism, Austin visited Zamboanga city and met Filipino generals and a small contingent of US counterterrorism forces based in a local military camp, regional Philippine military commander Lt. Gen. Roy Galido said.
The more than 100 US military personnel have provided intelligence and combat advice for years to Filipino troops battling a decades-long Muslim insurgency, which has considerably eased but remains a key threat.
More recently, US forces have intensified and broadened joint training focusing on combat readiness and disaster response with Filipino troops on the nation’s western coast, which faces the South China Sea, and in its northern Luzon region across the sea from the Taiwan Strait.
“The visit of Secretary Austin definitely, obviously will have to do with many of the ongoing discussions on the EDCA sites,” Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez said at a news briefing.
Austin was scheduled to hold talks Thursday with his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., and National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano, Romualdez said. Austin is the latest senior official to visit the Philippines after Vice President Kamala Harris in November in a sign of warming ties after a strained period under Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
Romualdez said the Philippines needed to cooperate with Washington to deter any escalation of tensions between China and self-ruled Taiwan—not only because of the treaty alliance but to help prevent a major conflict.
“We’re in a Catch-22 situation. If China makes a move on Taiwan militarily, we’ll be affected—and all Asean region, but mostly us, Japan and South Korea,” Romualdez told The Associated Press, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-nation regional bloc that includes the Philippines.
The Philippines and ASEAN members Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, have been locked in increasingly tense territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea. The US has been regarded as a crucial counterweight to China in the region and has pledged to come to the defense of the Philippines if Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under attack in the contested waters.
The Philippines used to host two of the largest US Navy and Air Force bases outside the American mainland. The bases were shut down in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but American forces returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops under a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops and their involvement in local combat.
Image credits: Jam Sta Rosa/Pool Photo via AP