MANILA - Activities related to the exercise-related construction work under the Philippines-United States Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are expected to “intensify” with the continuation of the Visiting Forces Agreement, the Philippine military said Thursday.
“We have discussed during our meeting just this morning ways forward on how to address those gaps that we have encountered because of some problems or challenges along the way. That includes the pandemic that we have right now, and we now look at a very good opportunity," Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief-of-staff Gen. Jose Faustino, Jr. said.
"Now that we have go-signal to push forward with the VFA and pretty much for the next coming year, we... will intensify our activities particularly related to EDCA."
Faustino said that there are ongoing talks for the United Kingdom to participate as an observer in the annual Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises in 2022. Japan and Australia are currently Balikatan observers.
Visiting US admiral John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, said funds have been released to implement the EDCA.
“I’ve released $12.5 million to meet the responsibilities that were outlined in the previous EDCA agreement and those fundings are being distributed in alignment with the prioritized order of capabilities that have agreed to by Gen. Faustino and me. So this is what right looks like through the lens of cooperation and in complete agreement by the two of us,” Aquilino said.
Under the EDCA, facilities are expected to be constructed to improve interoperability of US and Philippine troops, build capacity, strengthen the AFP for external defense, promote maritime security, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR). It is also expected to give way to storage and prepositioning of defense and HADR equipment, supplies and materiél.
Asked if Oyster Bay in Palawan is included in the list of possible EDCA sites, Faustino said there is no final list yet. Areas being considered include Fort Magsaysay, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, and Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City.
"The priorities right now (are) the one in Fort Magsaysay, the one in Basa Air Base, and the other one in Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City. If ever Oyster Bay was discussed, it was just a possible site but as of now, there is no final list of what the probable sites will be. But we’re looking at different areas and we’re considering of course how it would beneficial to our Armed Forces and to the United States armed forces also,” he said.
Aquilino, meanwhile, said it is not accurate to describe the EDCA sites as “temporary US facilities” since these are “designed to enhance the capabilities of the Philippines while contributing to” the alliance. The US, he added, comes “at the invitation of Gen. Faustino and the government.”
“So just want to be very clear that the capabilities that we end up delivering remain in place and enhance the cooperation and the capability of the Philippines armed forces and the United States,” he said.
Faustino welcomed the new trilateral security partnership of the US, Australia and the UK, saying the Philippines will benefit from it. Known as AUKUS, the alliance will see Australia get technology to deploy nuclear-powered submarines as part of the agreement intended to respond to growing Chinese power.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin earlier backed the new defense partnership, which was criticized sharply by some of the Philippines' neighbors.
“We acknowledge the right of those countries in developing their defense capabilities just as they acknowledge ours,” Faustino said.
Aquilino said the AUKUS agreement is expected to increase the capability of the undersea environment to maintain peace, security, and stability in the region.
Asked if the US will call for the Philippines' assistance amid tensions between China and Taiwan, and between the two Koreas, Aquilino declined to answer.
“Those security challenges that you identified are best met by a serious and teaming of many nations aligned to support the values that we believe in: freedom for all, equal voice in disputes amongst all nations large and small, human rights, freedom of navigation, and the adherence to the rules-based international order,” he said.
The naval forces of the United States, Japan, Australia and India earlier started a joint exercise in the Bay of Bengal in the northeastern Indian Ocean amid China's maritime assertiveness in the region.
Known as the "Quad", the four countries are working together to realize a free and open Indo-Pacific region and counter China's growing economic and military clout.
In a joint statement released after the leaders of the 4 nations met in September, they said, "Together, we recommit to promoting the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond."
— With reports from Kyodo News and Reuters