MANILA, Philippines – The US Congress has earmarked $66 million for the construction of military facilities in the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Ambassador Philip Goldberg told a media forum yesterday.
“Let me point out that we have about $66 million in foreign military funding in process for the Philippines and we expect that there will be additional sources of funds for both carrying out EDCA to military construction funds and also to increases in what we call the maritime security initiative,” Goldberg said at the Pandesal Forum in Quezon City.
“So we will work through all of those figures and also working with our Congress, which of course you have to deal with as well in terms of what the Philippines may bring to the table,” he said.
The ambassador also pointed out there would be no new military base under EDCA.
“EDCA is designed to support what the Philippines is trying to do in terms of building a minimum credible defense, in terms of modernizing and equipping its armed forces,” he added.
He cited US assistance to the Philippine Coast Guard for the establishment and operation of a National Coast Watch Center.
Japan and Australia are also helping the Philippines as the country embarks on building a minimum credible defense system.
Golderg also said the US is open to the possibility of conducting joint patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea. The Philippines calls its side of the waters within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone the West Philippine Sea.
“I’m not going to pre-judge what we’re going to do or when we’re going to do it, whether we’re going to do it with the Philippines or with others. But we do discuss those principles with the Philippines and so I’m not discounting that possibility,” he said.
“But we’re not going to discuss that beforehand because it’s our view that we have every right under international law to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea and we will continue to do so,” he pointed out.
When asked if the US would have to deal with restrictions under EDCA for its planned joint patrols, Goldberg said, “I don’t think there are any limitations on what the US can do.”
But he clarified that EDCA itself was not designed to address the maritime disputes between China and its smaller neighbors, particularly the Philippines.
The effort, he said, is to help the Philippines develop a dependable maritime security program.
“I don’t want to announce publicly what those steps will be exactly and I’m not going to announce anything about joint patrols. I’m going to say that we’ll continue with freedom of navigation operations,” Goldberg said.
Manila protested when a commercial Chinese aircraft landed recently on one of several artificial islands Beijing has built on the Spratlys, and officials say China has essentially declared an air defense identification zone over the sea by issuing “provocative” challenges to Philippine military flights in the area.
Two US warships have sailed by China-claimed islands in the Spratly and Paracel island chains since October.
Tensions have risen in the last two years after China built islands on disputed reefs in the Spratly Islands chain that China’s neighbors fear could be used to threaten their territories.
China and Taiwan have nearly identical claims to almost the entire South China Sea while the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei say parts of the sea belong to them. The US does not claim any part of the territory but says it has interest in the peaceful settlement of the disputes and in freedom of navigation in waters critical for world trade.
“We seek the best possible relationship with China but we would also like to see the engagement of the entire region on solutions that are rules-based and not unilateral,” the ambassador said. Forging of a code of conduct in the area “to us is the way to go,” he added.
The Philippines and the US have committed to coordinate closely on the implementation of the EDCA.
Such commitment is embodied in the 2016 Joint Statement of the US-Philippines Ministerial Dialogue in Washington last month signed by Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Secretary of State John Kerry and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.
Meanwhile, militant lawmakers have asked the Supreme Court (SC) to reconsider its ruling last month upholding the legality of EDCA.
In a motion for reconsideration, petitioners led by Bayan Muna party-list Reps. Neri Colmenares and Carlos Zarate asked the high court to reverse its decision and instead declare EDCA unconstitutional.
Insisting that EDCA is a treaty that needs Senate concurrence, the petitioners said the 10 justices in the majority ruling erred in declaring EDCA as an executive agreement.
“The clear provisions of the Constitution were disregarded, in favor of a stretched-out argument to expand the powers of the President. The decision lacks legitimacy, especially in light of the Senate’s demand to submit EDCA for deliberation by the legislature,” they argued.
The militant lawmakers also insisted the agreement would set the stage for the reestablishment of US military bases in the country despite clear prohibition under the Constitution and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
They added EDCA is no guarantee of immediate US help in the event of a direct confrontation with China.
“We cannot expect the US to fly to our side the moment confrontations escalate to defend our home front. No such promise has been made, nor will be fulfilled,” they stressed.
“If the SC does not reverse its decision on EDCA, we will repeat the errors and horrors of our military bases experience,” petitioners claimed.
The majority decision penned by Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno ruled that EDCA is not constitutionally infirm as alleged by petitioners.
The SC rejected the arguments of petitioners – supported by the Senate through its Resolution No. 105 – that the agreement was a treaty similar to the VFA and Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
The high court pointed out that the law requires Senate concurrence and considers an agreement a treaty only when it serves as an “instrument that allows the presence of foreign military bases, troops or facilities.”
In this case, the SC said EDCA is “not the instrument that allows US troops or facilities to enter as the VFA already has done that,” citing its earlier ruling that upheld the validity of the VFA.
Associate Justices Teresita Leonardo-de Castro, Arturo Brion, Estela Perlas-Bernabe and Marvic Leonen gave dissenting opinions. – With Edu Punay, AFP