WASHINGTON — The Philippines and the United States seek to identify 5 additional sites for projects under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
A senior US Defense official told visiting Filipino journalists in an interview at the Pentagon that the defense leadership of both countries also agreed in a recent meeting in Hawaii to speed up funding for infrastructure in 5 existing EDCA sites.
The official who declined to be named said this would allow Philippine and US forces to “respond more quickly” to disasters and crises that may happen in the Philippines.
The Philippines and the United States previously identified EDCA sites in Basa Airbase in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation, Lumbia Air Base, Antonio Bautista Air Base, and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base.
Basa Airbase is the site of the first EDCA project, which is a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief warehouse that will be used to preposition equipment and supplies for humanitarian crises response in the region.
The senior US Defense official said the 2 countries had yet to name the 5 additional sites, which would be subject to consultations.
“What we agreed to coming out of that conversation in Hawaii was one, that we are going to accelerate investments in infrastructure at the 5 existing EDCA sites and, also, that we would consult closely and look at a roadmap toward additional sites that could be added on to the EDCA in the future,” the senior US Defense official said.
“I think they are very much related to our commitment to standing beside the Philippines as a treaty ally so I would say that that is broader than simply the South China Sea but it is ensuring that we are able to support the Philippines and working with the Philippines in responding to a range of challenges including, as I mentioned, any kinds of disasters or other problems in the Philippines that we would want to offer support for,” the official added.
Sealed in 2014 under the administration of the late Benigno Aquino III, the EDCA allows US forces access to 5 Philippine bases to help counterbalance growing Chinese presence in the South China Sea.
The US and the Philippines have an obligation to help each other should they be attacked in the South China Sea under the Mutual Defense Treaty, noted Gregory Poling, Director of the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It’s extremely important that the US and the Philippines rapidly implement EDCA,” Poling said in a separate interview.
He added the closest US assets are in Okinawa and Guam.
“There are no American forces close enough to actually defend Filipinos should they be attacked in the South China Sea. The Philippines has a matching obligation under the treaty. Article 2 specifies that the Philippines must… provide the United States the access to fulfill its obligations,” Poling said, describing EDCA as a “stop-gap measure” to allow the Armed Forces of the Philippines the time to modernize.
US officials meantime confirmed additional training exercises between the US and Philippine militaries are expected.
Amy Archibald, Director of the Office of Maritime Southeast Asia of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and the Pacific told visiting journalists that the US is looking at working with other partners in the region for regional and multilateral exercises which will also deal with new technology, humanitarian assistance, and health exchanges.
“It shows just how important is the Philippines is to us. There’s a Mutual Defense Treaty that we have. We say it’s ironclad but that can only be true if we show if we mean it and this is one of the ways that we can show that we really mean it,” Archibald said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippine Defense officer-in-charge Jose Faustino, Jr. recently agreed to build on the commitment made by the 2 countries in their joint vision statement by “enhancing training and activities” and increasing them as lockdowns have eased amid the pandemic, said the official who requested anonymity.
This would include more regular interactions between military officials on both sides and ways to strengthen the combined response to challenges such as disaster relief operations, maritime challenges, and infectious diseases, as well as ensure greater capacity to protect sovereign rights.
“I think the range of engagements as you have seen between the 2 administrations reflects more broadly the commitment that the United States has to our alliance relationship with the Philippines which is something that endures across administrations that is bipartisan, it is longstanding and I do not think it is something that is going to change,” the senior US defense official said.
CODE OF CONDUCT
A US State Department official reiterated that a code of conduct in the South China Sea should not prevent the United States from advancing peace and security in the region.
“The United States is a Pacific nation. We are also a trading nation. For us, our commitment to a free and open Pacific, secure, prosperous, and resilient Pacific is really important and to the extent that a code of conduct can help us with those objectives, we think that it’s quite important," said Amy Archibald, director of the Office of Maritime Southeast Asia of the State Department’s Bureau of East Asia and the Pacific.
“What we don’t want to see is a code of conduct that would be used to exclude important regional partners and so I think that it’s not just a matter of getting an agreement but getting a good agreement and one that preserves those objectives, those of free and open Pacific,” Archibald said.
“I think we all prosper when we have international norms and stability and so we are looking for a code of conduct that will essentially promote an international rules-based order in the maritime environment,” she added.
Archibald added a code of conduct must lead to an “international rules-based system that allows the free, open and prosperous” region.
“I think with the code of conduct, it’s not so much having a code of conduct but having a good one so the details would very much matter to us. We expect to be in the South China Sea as we have been and we’d definitely oppose to any effort not to include us in those. The code of conduct would be important if it does lead to the international rules-based system that allows the free, open, and prosperous Pacific,” Archibald said.
Poling does not see a code of conduct being finalized any time soon.
He said China has used the time to “change facts on the ground” while blocking joint exploration of claimants and resupply missions to Philippine forces stationed in Ayungin Shoal.
“All of this has become, frankly, a farce. Chinese has the code of conduct process to buy time while it blocked resupply at the (BRP) Sierra Madre and prevent oil and gas exploration in Recto Bank and everywhere else and just change the facts on the ground. And 5 or 10 years from now when China controls all peaceful activity within the South China Sea, the code of conduct will be entirely academic,” Poling said.