MANILA - The need for the Philippines to seek the help of an ally, the United States, in improving the former's military capability amid the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute with China may well warrant the inking of the Philippine-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), according to Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno.
Interpellating Atty. Rachel Pastores, one of the counsels for petitioners, Sereno pointed out that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) acknowledged the need to enter into this kind of agreeement with the US in order to address short-term gaps in the AFP's capability, as well as to further the AFP's long-term modernization goals.
"This is the AFP... saying, 'we are looking this as an approach at filling our capabilities...' Is it grave abuse of discretion for a government to ask an ally, with whom you have a mutual defense agreement with since the 1950s, to fill the gaps? Promoting long-term modernization -- is that bad for the AFP?" she said.
"The fact that we brought a [maritime dispute] before the ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea), isn't that a fact that we must explore all means? Isn't that the greatest threat when our fishing grounds are no longer accessible to us? I see our islands in the West Philippine Sea being overtaken. What is wrong with prepositioning? How long does it take for a missile to reach Palawan?" Sereno asked.
Sereno said the EDCA is a tool to raise awareness in the international community about our claims over the disputed territories.
"'Helping maintain and develop additional maritime security, maritime domain awareness' -- so we're talking about the West Philippine Sea problem here because we have no problem with the eastern side (of our islands), it's with the western side… we are still in the process in making the international community aware that we are asserting our right under the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea)," Sereno stressed.
The chief magistrate also pointed out that it may still be premature to challenge the EDCA by citing fears and apprehensions that are mere "speculations" and have "no basis in fact."
She stressed that, to date, there is no violation of any of the provisions of the agreement nor any offense committed on the part of the US under the terms of the agreement.
"We have a problem here... unless the facts [are before us], and we are not a trier of facts, we cannot presume the factual situation; we cannot paint for the people a situation where the facts are not yet presented before us.
"In other words, if we are going to presume falsity on the part of the Philippine government, then we rule that the EDCA is unconstitutional, but we don't have that legal authority especially that there has been no hearing (on the facts)," Sereno said.
Sereno also challenged petitioners' position that "past experiences" with the United States under the now defunct Military Bases Agreement should pose caution on entering "new agreements" with the Americans.
Pastores, for her part, stressed that the "totality" and "full text" of the EDCA show that the agreement is "lop-sided" in favor of the US and to the detriment of the Philippines' national sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"The gamut of authorities granted to US forces... it's practically surrendering to the US the sovereignty of the Philippines," Pastores said.
The hearing ended at past 6 p.m. and will resume on November 25, with the presentation of the Office of the Solicitor General (OSG), in defense of the EDCA.