At Ground Level | Nine years later, still no clarity on ‘EDCA sites’

A news report on Thursday in Business Mirror that headlined “Senate grills defense brass on plans for EDCA expansion, sites” raised much curiosity for its sheer lack of detailed information. I found this unusual for a reportage by veteran newsman Butch Fernandez, whom I have known for decades.

Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. led a team that updated senators on the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the report began, but was confronted with questions from the chair of the foreign relations committee about the selection of new EDCA sites.

The report said Galvez briefed the senators on the following: “The status/completion rate of the five EDCA sites; purpose of each site (both old and new); benefits and risks of the sites and other matters related to EDCA.” But it did not provide a single data or detail on any of these important points of the briefing.

Had the Senate committee, or Galvez’s team, requested the reporters covering the hearing not to disclose the details for “security” or whatever reason? I noted the absence of details also in other newspaper reports about what Galvez reportedly presented to the committee.

Instead, the Business Mirror report shifted to the committee chairperson, Sen. Imee Marcos, who asked for “details of the latest plan to construct four more US military bases in the Philippines as part of EDCA’s implementation.” Note that the term “US military bases” is interchangeably used as “EDCA sites.” Butch Fernandez may have seen no practical difference between the two terms. And he may be correct!

Sen. Marcos echoed the concerns expressed by local government officials (Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba and Isabela Gov. Rodolfo Albano III) whose jurisdictions were reportedly designated as new EDCA sites, the report noted. Moreover, she “wonder[ed] aloud” if the inclusion of one northern province was “meant to provide the US forces a footstool in case of conflict [between China and the US] over Taiwan.” Taiwan is geographically closest to the northernmost tip of Cagayan province.

The point Imee Marcos raised, the report further noted, was “something that deviates from the understanding that the Philippines is expanding ties with treaty ally the US mainly because of a need to boost security in the West Philippine Sea.”

In fact, last Feb. 27, Marcos Jr. called on the Armed Forces of the Philippines to defend the country’s territory in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea. He told the troops in Cebu: “Even if there is war in Ukraine, the South China Sea is said to be the most difficult and most complicated problem. That is why I said the mission of the AFP has changed. We need to safeguard those that we did not think much about previously.”

Nonetheless, the Business Mirror report said, Sen. Marcos “told the Executive [her younger brother Ferdinand Marcos Jr.] to prioritize the construction of unfinished EDCA bases, noting that only five of the 21 sites previously agreed upon were far from completed.”

Way back on April 26, 2014 (or nine years ago), I wrote in this space regarding the inception of the EDCA:

“The exact provisions of the agreement – the subject of negotiations since 2012 – have been kept under wraps by both the US and the Philippine governments. Once announced as a done deal, the agreement’s provisions should be made public for any concerned party to question and challenge –whether they are equitable, just, legal or constitutional.”

I then cited what the Department of Foreign Affairs had couched as the EDCA objectives “in terms that require definitive clarifications.” For instance:

• Increasing the presence of US troops on a “rotational basis” in Philippine territory (averaging 600 armed personnel since 2002) towards developing a “minimum credible defense posture.”

• Building this minimum defense posture in order to “enhance maritime domain awareness” and to “develop a deterrence capability.”

• Developing “deterrence capability” through “high-impact and high-value” joint military exercises which promote “interoperability and capacity-building” that will also bolster “humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

“The core issue in the EDCA, however,” I further wrote then, “is military access and facilities. The US would be allowed to build its own military facilities within Philippine bases/camps (foreign bases within national bases?), provided Filipino military (and civilian?) officials would have access to such facilities.” But I pointed out, “The decade-old US facility built within a Philippine base in Zamboanga City has been off-limits to Filipinos.”

At the time, then US president Barack Obama was scheduled to come to Manila. With implicit certainty, the International New York Times reported that Obama was expected to announce the signing of the EDCA that would “give American ships and planes the most extensive access to (Philippine military) bases” since the two huge US bases [Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base] were thrown out in 1992.

The INYT described the EDCA as “the centerpiece” of Obama’s trip which “aims to reassure America’s allies of its treaty commitments, respond to China’s growing assertiveness as a regional economic-military power and promote the US role in the region’s economic growth.”

The EDCA “is a modest step to reassert America’s military presence in Asia,” the INYT emphasized, adding, “But it could nonetheless antagonize China.”

A year later (April 25, 2015), I wrote in this space, one of a number of pieces following up on the EDCA, about what then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in a joint press conference with the visiting Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera.

Gazmin announced that the Philippines would establish basing arrangements for the American and Japanese militaries. He declared, “Under a plan to ‘roll back’ China’s aggressive actions in the SCS/WPS, the Philippines would allow the US, Japan and ‘other allies’ access to the country’s military bases.” On what legal basis, he didn’t say.

Today, are we not hearing similar or closely-related proposals from defense and foreign affairs officials, as well as from members of the Senate and the House of Representatives?

* * *


Published in Philippine Star
March 4, 2023

Share This Post