MANILA - Can the new defense agreement between the Philippines and the US keep China at bay?
When US President Barack Obama sets foot on Philippine soil on Monday, there is no question the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will be signed before he arrives in the afternoon, will take center stage.
With tensions rising between the Philippines and China over the West Philippine Sea, many are asking what impact this new defense agreement would have on bilateral relations and territorial disputes.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg are set to sign the agreement today, a few hours before Obama’s arrival.
Some Philippine officials hope the EDCA would keep China at bay, stop it from bullying Filipino fishermen and, if the need arises, prompt the US to take the Philippine side in case of an armed conflict.
The Philippines has already lost Scarborough Shoal also known as Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal (Huangyan Island) to the Chinese. With three ships permanently stationed in Scarborough Shoal, China is in control of the rock, 124 nautical miles from Zambales since April 8, 2012.
China has also been in control of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys since 1995.
US officials have so far managed to sidestep questions on how the US would respond in case of conflict over territorial disputes in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.
At an April 18 White House briefing, National Security Adviser Susan Rice said: “On the question of territorial disputes, I mean, I think you will hear the President say what has been consistently US policy, which is that these disputes need to be resolved, ought to be resolved through peaceful means, not through coercion, not through threats, not through anything other than peaceful diplomatic means based on the rule of law -- and in this instance, the international law, and particularly the law of the sea. And that will continue to be our strong view, and we have shared that in all of our engagements with concerned parties.”
In an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News, although Obama did not answer directly whether an enhanced US presence in the Philippines would address China’s expansionist moves, he said bilateral security cooperation can help ensure disputes are "solved peacefully."
“I want to be absolutely clear—the new defense cooperation agreement that we are negotiating is not about trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases. Rather, any new agreement would give American service members greater access to Filipino facilities, airfields and ports, which would remain under the control of the Philippines. US forces would not be based in the Philippines. Instead, they would rotate through for joint training and exercises—as some US forces already do,” he said in a written response to some of ABS-CBN News’ questions.
“On security, we can deepen our security cooperation in the Asia Pacific and work to ensure that international law is respected and disputes are solved peacefully."
At a White briefing last April 18, Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes illustrated the sum and substance of Obama’s 4-nation trip: “To underscore our deep security cooperation over the years, but also our security cooperation in the current environment in the Asia Pacific as we seek to build out and advance the relationship between our militaries.”
WHAT IS EDCA?
What’s actually covered by the EDCA?
As pieced together by ABS-CBN News, the highlights of EDCA include:
On Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Relief: The agreement institutionalizes the response the US can provide for disaster relief as it would make it easier for the US to supply the country with relief and medical supplies, instead of sourcing these from Hawaii;
Allowing US access to Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) bases and vice versa.
"There are just two elements in EDCA. One, joint use or sharing of AFP bases. Two, allow construction of facilities in these shared areas and allow prepositioning of supplies like gas, bullets...And whatever they build there, when they leave, becomes property of the government,” said a Philippine senior official.
The senior Philippine official said the EDCA has nothing to do with the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which refers to visits and stay of US military personnel. “EDCA refers to storage, facilities and areas,” he explained.
The official could not provide provisions on criminal jurisdiction, which would lay out the rules, for instance, when an American soldier is accused of a crime, as in the case of Daniel Smith who was accused of rape, except to say Philippine laws would apply.
The senior official told ABS-CBN News that EDCA is just a “framework agreement" which seeks to reinforce “military preparedness” of both the US and the Philippines, as EDCA is part of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) implementation forged 60 years ago.
MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS?
But this is where the EDCA raises more questions than answers. Questions come from activists, lawmakers, and even diplomats.
For instance, why forge a military agreement with the US when the Cold War is over and the focus now is on trade and globalization?
Critics can’t also help but bring out the issues raised against the former US military bases, all eloquently illustrated when the Senate voted to remove these 23 years ago.
Three of the senators who rejected the renewal of the Philippine-US bases treaty in 1991 issued a statement on Saturday, expressing concern that the agreement may run counter to the Constitution and effectively reverse the historic vote of the Senate against the US military facilities in the Philippines.
As American author Nico Colchester wrote in his1994 book titled Asia Pacific: Its role in the new world disorder, "The Philippines...can never mature until the country cuts the political, psychological, and cultural umbilical cord connecting it to the United States, (but) the process may now have begun as result of the US being asked to remove its military bases in 1992.”
There is also the issue of whether EDCA would require Senate concurrence.
Both governments maintain that the document is merely an executive agreement, not in violation of the Philippine Constitution, and is just based on Article 2 of the existing MDT signed in 1951, and thus, there is no need for a Senate concurrence.
International law experts Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago, public interest lawyer Harry Roque and some other legal luminaries think otherwise.
CLOSING DOORS OR NEW OPENING?
A retired diplomat, who is pushing for bilateral talks with China on the disputed islands, fears that the EDCA would close all avenues to reaching out to China.
In addition, while some diplomats believe it was right for President Aquino to elevate the West Philippine Sea dispute to international arbitration, they say the administration failed to tap the power of bilateral initiatives to woo Chinese leaders.
Former Philippine Ambassador to the UN Lauro Baja, Jr., meantime, doubts whether the EDCA would ensure US military response in case of armed conflict in the disputed South China Sea.
“The US will not compromise their strategic relations with China over some shoals or reefs. They will not. Maybe if push comes to shove--if their strategic relations with China will be that much affected--I don’t think they will go all out for the Philippines. Their strategic relation with China is that important now--not just bilaterally but for other issues--North Korea, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Middle East. The Philippines is just a speck and we shouldn’t go overboard from these general pronouncements and consider these an achievement of our foreign policy,|” he said.
However, he believes the EDCA will help the Philippines in some way. “What we can hope for is to parlay whatever we can get from the deal to our advantage," Baja said.
Anti-US bases activist Roland Simbulan said US willingness to go to war for the Philippines was tested during the Jabidah massacre in Sabah, a covert operation by the Marcos government in Malaysia. “That should have been an eye opener for us,” he said. “We almost went to war over that claim. Our official asked them [US for support], the US said no.
Simbulan said he also has doubts the US can still help modernize the AFP, given its economic problems. “If (the Americans) really wanted to do this, they could have done so better when they had bases here. They should be giving us soft loans to enable us to buy modern equipment instead of ships better for the junkyard. They can’t do it now because of their limited resources.”
Simbulan also claims the US has wantonly violated the VFA, and the EDCA would only legalize these violations.
“There was a 10-year review of the VFA at the Senate, Senator Santiago conducted many public hearings and the conclusion is that it has been wantonly violated,” he said. “The Senate issued a resolution that there must be a bilateral review or the Philippines must abrogate. Then a senator, the President was a signatory but now, during his administration, he did act on it.”
The VFA is supposed to be for joint training, "but the Americans can’t do that everywhere,” Simbulan said. “Now, they want to access to more, use all our piers and ports for US navy to have access to them. Mas malawak. They can set up facilities within what their budget can afford.”
Renato Reyes of the leftist group Bayan Muna said the US has a long history of ignoring its commitment to the Philippines. In an article he wrote on his blog, he reminds mainstream Philippine media that the Obama administration still has not paid a single cent for the damage one of its warships caused in Tubbataha Reef, as well as toxic waste left behind in its former bases in Clark and Subic.
“On January 17, 2013, a US minesweeper, the USS Guardian, ran aground in a protected marine area known as the Tubbataha Reef, an area declared by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. No officer of the ship has been made accountable under PH laws. No payment has been made for more than 2,000 square meters damaged by the ship. It is the same story more than 20 years earlier when the US government refused to pay for the clean-up of their former military bases in Clark and Subic, saying that the clean-up of the toxic wastes was not part of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement,” he said. -- With reports from Chi Almario, Gigi Grande, ABS-CBN News