The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed on April 28, 2014. It supplements the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), intended to bolster the alliance of the Philippines and the United States of America. The Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality twice in 2016, the second one with finality.
It’s the most significant defense agreement between the US and the Philippines in decades. Because the US is constitutionally barred from establishing permanent military bases here, the EDCA allows the US to rotate its troops in the Philippines and allows build-operate facilities on Philippine bases for both their military forces. The Philippines has personnel access to American ships and planes.
In January 2019, the first major project under the EDCA was completed at the Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga. There are on-going EDCA projects at four other locations — Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, the Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, and the Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu. Last week, four additional locations in Northern Luzon and Palawan were designated under the EDCA, but the exact locations remain confidential pending further consultations.
Extensive access to key locations facing the West Philippine Sea, Luzon Strait, and, possibly, the Pacific Ocean, underscores America’s goal to develop integrated deterrence. The Philippines occupies strategic real estate vital to our national interests and that of many nations. It’s vital to China, which is aiming to be the center of the universe. It’s vital to the economic interests of countries who rely on safe passage through our sea lines of communication. It’s vital to countries in the Indo-Pacific region dissuading China from pursuing its hegemonic plans.
President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s decision to fully implement and expand the scope of the EDCA is a sharp departure from former President Rodrigo Duterte’s swing to the left before belatedly returning to the center. Although Mr. Duterte’s independent foreign policy of being a “friend to all” has been upheld by Mr. Marcos, his all-out support for the PHL-US defense alliance serves as leverage against an increasingly warlike China. As such, Balikatan exercises have dramatically increased in the number of joint activities and participating troops.
In 2016, France and the Philippines signed a defense pact to help modernize our military amid tensions with China. The agreement covers bilateral cooperation that relates to defense equipment, logistics, and defense industry development. It provides for “high-level visits to increase cooperation; defense policy consultations; capacity-building training and exercises; exchanges of information; and the development of naval cooperation.” Both countries are also eyeing a strong partnership on nuclear energy.
France has built five ships for the Philippine Coast Guard — one 83-meter Offshore Patrol Vessel and four 24-meter Fast Patrol Boats — and intends to build a P1.5-billion shipyard. It also includes a five-year program for preventive maintenance, spare parts, technical assistance and training. Previously, France submitted three LOIs confirming financial support for the Department of Transportation’s upcoming projects; financial aid to support a training boat contract for the Philippine Merchant Marine Academy; and a possible maritime expert proposal.
Last November, the Philippines and France signed a memorandum of agreement to strengthen the country’s maritime safety and security, particularly in ship building and ship repair. France will deploy a maritime expert to provide the necessary technical assistance, training, and consultancy service on best practice to ensure SOLAPS, create a National Transport Plan and help implement the 10-year Maritime Industry Development Plan to modernize the local fleet.
Last week, Mr. Marcos and Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to sharply boost defense ties allowing Japanese troops greater access to Philippine territory on account of rising volatility in the East and South China Seas. It allows Japan to deploy its forces for humanitarian missions and disaster response in the Philippines; conduct more joint exercises; reciprocal port calls and aircraft visits; transfer of Japanese defense equipment and technology; and strengthen trilateral cooperation with the US.
Mr. Kishida and Mr. Marcos also agreed to strengthen cyber and economic security; reinforce the capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), and improve port facilities at Subic Bay. In recent years, Japanese official development assistance (ODA) funded the construction and delivery of two 97-meter and 10 44-meter patrol vessels for the PCG. There are reports that Japan may provide five more patrol vessels under similar arrangements.
Last December, Japan adopted key security and defense policies that sharply depart from its post-World War II policy of self-defense; as well as development assistance for maritime safety and security upgrades. Consequently, Japan announced a 600 billion yen ($4.6 billion) economic assistance package for the Philippines through March 2024 to improve our infrastructure, information and communication technologies, energy security and industrial development.
The Philippines and Australia also inked a memorandum of understanding on Cooperative Defense Activities in 1995. Australia is one of the Philippines’ only two VFA partners. Both countries enjoy a significant degree of security cooperation, including the presence of Australian mobile training teams for capacity-building on counter-terrorism, urban warfare, maritime security, and other fronts. Yet, despite the broad range of ongoing bilateral activities, the significant potential for enhanced cooperation remains a largely unexplored opportunity.
We must step up. Modernization is slow, erratic, and inadequate. To this day, we don’t have clear rules of engagement to deal with China’s gray zone tactics. We don’t have a roadmap to obtain guarantees from our allies in exchange for the EDCA arrangements that place us in the crosshairs of China, such as:
1. Bankrolling the total annual repairs and maintenance expenses of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, PCG and Philippine National Police.
2. Swift access to energy, food, smart munitions, ammo stockpiles, manned and unmanned war-fighting systems and assets (air-sea-land-space-cyber) at preferential terms.
3. Continuous joint hybrid warfare training and sea-air patrols.
4. Hardening our vital human security and military infrastructure.
Our defense pacts with these countries are crucial for regional stability, human and ecological security. Yet, there’s no integrated and systematic action that is so essential in deterring China. Everyone must focus and close ranks to protect our common national interests. If we’ve been paying attention, war is just around the corner. The clock is ticking. We better move it.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.
Rafael “Raffy” M. Alunan III is a former governor of MAP. He is the vice-chair of Pepsi-Cola Products Philippines, Inc. He is a member of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, and sits on the boards of other companies as an independent director.