EDCA: No secrets when reading between the lines

BIZLINKS - Rey Gamboa - The Philippine Star

There is no equivalent sentence that translates to the Filipino’s expression of “namamangka sa dalawang ilog,” and which would better describe what President Marcos is currently toeing, as reflective of his cordial relationships with the United States and China.

To be sure, it is a decidedly different approach than what his two predecessors adopted. The government of former president Benigno Aquino III was unstintingly anti-China, and even pursued with vigor its territorial claims of the disputed and allegedly hydrocarbon-rich Mischief Reef.

The succeeding government of former president Rodrigo Duterte, on the other hand, displayed a scornful demeanor of the US and its politics, and in fact could be the only Philippine president who, by choice, did not make any official trip to America.

In contrast, Marcos just barely three months in office, has taken the initiative to fly to New York for what is officially recorded as a working visit, and on the sidelines of the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly, met with US President Joe Biden.

We can expect our President to make more trips to the US, and even to China in the future, and none of these will likely induce a polarization of government foreign policy towards one or the other side. And this is how it is going to be unless the brewing geopolitics between the two superpowers will come to a head and force us to choose only one.


Meanwhile, the Philippines can best enjoy the freebies that are dangled by either side.

The US, by far, has the weightier investment portfolio in the Philippines, which is about nine times bigger than that of China. This is understandable given our long relationship the US dating back to the ending years of almost five centuries of Spanish rule. The Philippines has also gone through World War II with the US, when the lives of many Filipinos were sacrificed.

This war explains the US military presence in the Philippines, although the Philippine Senate in 1991 rejected the renewal of the 1947 Military Bases Agreement with the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Berlin Wall. In 1998, however, the US succeeded in forging a Visiting Forces Agreement that was eventually ratified by our Senate the following year.

In 2014, under the watch of Aquino, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed, allowing the US to rotate its troops in the Philippines while on extended stays, and to build and operate facilities in Philippine bases for use by both American and Filipino forces.

During the term of Duterte, EDCA lost some steam given his public views against allowing US troops and military assets in the country. His openly expressed his preference for improved ties with China, and even Russia.

During the six years of Duterte, however, his pro-China stance had only seen increased Chinese militarization of contested islands in the South China Sea, as well as more blatant use of force not only when confronting Filipino fishermen, but also our military patrols.

Even the promised funds and investments for infrastructure under Duterte’s Build Build Build program came in trickles, and carried far higher interest fees compared to those made available by Japan through its many multilateral funding institutions.

Despite Duterte’s antagonistic views of EDCA, though, his defense chief Delfin Lorenzana reported substantial investments as a result of EDCA, including the installation of big-ticket radars, more and more modern aircrafts, combat equipment, as well as additional military reinforcements in the border areas of the contested islands.

Leverage to play hardball?

The opening up of five additional areas wherein the US can operate in Philippine military bases under the recently expanded EDCA terms signals a more open stance of Marcos to the US, and also gives a reminder to China that we, as a nation, still have some leverage to play hardball.

The next year will be crucial as the Philippine government negotiates the nuances that come with the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) against our acceptance of a One-China policy with the signing in 1975 of the Joint Communique between China and the Philippines.

EDCA’s original importance to the Philippines in the past had largely been to strengthen our readiness to respond to increasing Chinese military presence in the South China Sea, but the worsening US-China relations with regards Taiwan is pushing the Philippines in a corner with little maneuvering room in light of the One-China policy.

Expanding EDCA’s operational scope to two Cagayan military facilities up North that are closest to China, and more importantly to Taiwan, reflect a deviation from our original intention on EDCA, and becomes more important for the US in strengthening its military positioning plans this year in the Indo-Pacific region.

Still, this could all be of little significance to the Philippines if, during the upcoming 2024 EDCA review, we will find a better pivotal strategy to avoid getting embroiled in an escalated attempt by China to annex Taiwan, and an aggressive response by the US to protect the island nation.

At stake

It could become tricky for the Philippines, which currently has about 200,000 Filipinos migrant workers employed in Taiwan, if and when China decides to pursue a hostile annexation of Taiwan.

A bigger concern, though, could be the increasing threat of China expanding its territorial claims nearer to the Philippines if Taiwan is successfully taken by force, and the US is unsuccessful in preventing such from happening.

Playing neutral now is a no-brainer, but how to play out our response when shit hits the fan will be more difficult to predict.

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Should you wish to share any insights, write me at Link Edge, 25th Floor, 139 Corporate Center, Valero Street, Salcedo Village, 1227 Makati City. Or e-mail me at [email protected]. For a compilation of previous articles, visit www.BizlinksPhilippines.net.


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