MANILA - The recently signed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States allows the US to choose which military base in the Philippines they can use.
This even if the Philippine negotiating panel maintains that the agreement upholds Philippine national interests.
In a press briefing, negotiating team members, Philippine Ambassador Edgardo Malaya and Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino fielded questions on the pact, signed just hours ahead of the visit of US President Barack Obama to Manila last April 28.
The negotiators maintained that the national interest of both countries will prevail in the implementation of the agreement.
However, Malaya indicated that the US has final say on which Philippine military bases they will use. The agreement allows US forces to use, construct facilities and bring equipment to Philippine military bases to boost the mutual defense capabilities of the 2 countries.
"We are the host and they are the guests. So we would be the one to designate the places where they would be…First and foremost to us is the protection and promotion of our Philippine national interest, and I think in our engagement and interaction with the US, that will at all times be within our minds. We can make an offer as to where they can go, then they can probably select from those," he said.
When asked what happens when the US refuses in case the Philippines offers bases near areas covered by disputes with China, Malaya said: "Then we will talk and negotiate again."
"We will re-offer those. Remember, what is important here is at all times we should be able to promote and protect our national interests. If there is a coincidence, a commonality between their interest and ours, then that would be great," he added.
The Philippines has asserted that the Mutual Defense Treaty of the two countries, from which the EDCA supposedly springs, covers the country’s disputes with China over the South China Sea.
The United States, while affirming its iron clad commitment to defend the Philippines, has been struggling to avoid a confrontation with China.
The government has been evasive when asked about which bases will be accessed by the US.
"I think those things, operational matters still have to be discussed, and I think it is premature at this point to discuss it," Malaya said.
The locations will be decided by the Mutual Defense Board and the Security Engagement Board. For now though, the focus is disaster preparedness.
Batino said the Armed Forces of the Philippines will play a very big role in the implementation of the EDCA with its discussions and consultations with the US Armed Forces.
He said the Department of National Defense will continue to coordinate with the US Department of Defense.
"The first thing that will have to be threshed out would be the agreed locations. Which of the AFP bases will be the venue for these defense cooperation activities? We are, of course, mindful that the security requirements—that we need to answer some of our security requirements very soon and we have started already some informal talks on the implementation stage of EDCA," he said.
Batino admitted the EDCA is not cast in stone since the consultative process is bilateral. "What I could say is that it could be flexible to answer evolving security concerns. But please take note that this is bilateral and definitely the AFP will play a very big role in the decision-making process," he said.
The negotiator admitted that the issue with China was considered in the negotiations for EDCA.
"Even outside of the negotiations during our bilateral strategic dialogues, the security environment, the regional security environment is a serious topic for discussion. So, of course, we cannot negotiate in a vacuum. We know that there are security concerns in the evolving security environment," he said.
Batino dismissed criticism that the pact is too vague to be transparent.
"Different modes were discussed, different possibilities were discussed before we entered into formal talks. We had to be very careful in even starting the formal negotiations. As had already been mentioned, the matter contained in EDCA is very—would already constitute important and serious concerns for the Philippines, and thus, the caution… And thus, of course, the Defense Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs proceeded very carefully.”
EQUIPMENT TO STAY
One of the terms of the EDCA is that equipment and facilities brought by the US will remain with the Philippines once the US forces leave.
Government negotiators were hard pressed to say just exactly what the Philippines is getting out of that arrangement.
Batino said that while the government recognizes the primacy of the AFP modernization program, "there is still that recognition that presently we lack some defense equipment, and it is that lack that EDCA would address."
"There is language here in EDCA that provides that the parties share a recognition of the benefits that such prepositioning could have for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.The parties also recognize the value of such prepositioning to the enhancement of their individual and collective defense capabilities, again, in reference to the mutual defense capability objective of the Mutual Defense Treaty," he said.
"The availability of prepositioned equipment, for us to address our concerns in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, is very, very important.”
As to facilities constructed by the US, Batino said these clearly are Philippine property.
"Under EDCA, there is an expressed provision stating that from the time the facilities, the new facilities introduced by the US—of course, with the consent of the AFP using US money—from Day One, this would already be Philippine government property. Again, connecting this with the AFP modernization program, one component of which is bases development and support. This would be very helpful in that component of the AFP modernization program."
Malaya added that buildings that would be put up using American money in the agreed locations would become Philippine government property upon its completion.
"In fact, I think this is one of those features that distinguishes the arrangements under EDCA from what we have seen before at Subic and Clark."
Batino said the US obligation to clean up of any environmental damage caused by the equipment brought in is not limited to the bases.
"The provision does not limit the environmental protection measures to within AFP bases. It covers all defense cooperation activities that are implemented under EDCA, that are implemented as joint activities between the Philippine and US militaries," he said.
Malaya said the Philippines drew lessons from its experience hosting the former US bases in Subic and Clark.
"We have been assured by them, by the US side, that they have a 'clean as you go policy'; that the military follows that very carefully because they don’t want any spill to remain and cause further damage," he said.
Despite all the questions raised against the agreement, Batino said government is prepared for challenges to the legality of the pact.
“As we were negotiating this EDCA, we were mindful already of statements issued during the negotiations by several stakeholders, several individuals that they would be filing a legal challenge before the Supreme Court. And being mindful of that, we were more… This pushed us to even negotiate even more vigorously for language that would be defensible under the Philippine Constitution and under relevant laws.”
Malaya added: "A member of our negotiating panel is Undersecretary Francisco Baraan of the Department of Justice. He is assisted by a senior lawyer in that department, who specializes in international law, and therefore, all through the negotiations we have been guided by the Department of Justice."