8 Philippine camps eyed for US

The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - At least eight military camps are being considered as sites for US equipment to be pre-positioned in the country under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), an official said yesterday.

Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Col. Restituto Padilla said the shortlist includes military installations in Nueva Ecija, Clark, Palawan, Cebu and Cagayan de Oro.

“They can be part of the areas that can be devoted for maritime security and maritime domain awareness. But there is no final agreement yet,” Padilla told a press conference yesterday.

He said the priority sites are Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija and Basa Airbase in Pampanga.

Other camps being eyed are the Antonio Bautista Airbase in Palawan, Benito Ebuen Airbase in Cebu, Clark Airbase in Pampanga, Lumbia Airfield in Cagayan de Oro and unnamed naval bases in Palawan and Cebu.

Padilla said negotiators from the Philippines and the US would soon resume discussions on the implementing regulations for EDCA now that the Supreme Court (SC) has upheld its legality.

Voting 10-4, SC justices have ruled that the EDCA is constitutional and is an executive agreement that needs no Senate concurrence.

According to the Supreme Court, the EDCA provides for arrangements to implement existing treaties that allow the entry of foreign military troops or facilities under the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Defense Treaty. The MDT, signed in 1951, allows the Philippines and the US to jointly develop their security capabilities to resist armed attacks.

The high court said the VFA, not EDCA, is the instrument that permits US forces or facilities to enter the country.

Signed by the Philippines and the US in 1999, the VFA allows American soldiers to conduct training on Philippine soil on rotational basis.

The Supreme Court also ruled that EDCA is a valid executive agreement that the President is allowed to enter into under the Constitution.

Padilla said negotiating panels from both countries would come up with recommendations and forward them to the Mutual Defense Board (MDB) and the Security Engagement Board (SEB) for approval.

The proposals will also require the approval of the Council of Ministers composed of the defense and foreign affairs heads of the Philippines and the US.

“If the Mutual Defense Board assesses that it is necessary to increase our interoperability and enhance our capacities then it will be done, but it remains at the level of the MDB and SEB to make those recommendations,” Padilla said.

He could not say though when the negotiating panels would resume their talks.

“It is best to wait for our delegation to come back from Washington, they may have news regarding the timeline that can be followed regarding the preparation of the IRRs that may be required to govern this agreement,” Padilla said. IRR stands for implementing rules and regulations.

EDCA was signed by Philippine and US defense officials on April 28, 2014 hours before the state visit of President Barack Obama.

Washington meeting

Within hours of the Supreme Court’s upholding the legality of EDCA, top US and Philippine officials began discussions in Washington on possible locations in the Philippines where US troops and equipment as well as humanitarian supplies can be stationed.

The court decision gave clearer direction to the 2+2 ministerial talks on Tuesday between Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and their Filipino counterparts Albert del Rosario and Voltaire Gazmin on troop deployment and storage of logistics.

Del Rosario said EDCA would definitely enhance the security arrangements between the two countries.

He declined to specify the number of agreed locations that would be offered to US forces.

A flurry of Chinese activities in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea in recent days has raised concerns that Beijing may be preparing to impose an air defense identification zone to regulate flights over the area.

Two Chinese aircraft made test landings on contested Kagitingan (Fiery Cross ) Reef.

Del Rosario said the Chinese used flashing lights, flares and verbal challenges against Philippine military flights over Spratly Islands.

“We view these provocative actions as a de facto ADIZ in the South China Sea and threats to freedom of navigation and overflights that ultimately will serve to impede lawful commerce,” Del Rosario said.

“Given this strategic context, we should be in a position to address such common concerns, as well as contribute to regional peace and stability,” Del Rosario said at the State Department meeting.

He said the Philippines is looking at the possibility of joint activities in the West Philippine Sea with the US but has not come to any conclusions yet.

The DFA chief described the EDCA as “an important security component of our alliance and it is going to be helpful in terms of the maritime domain awareness and security cooperation with the US.”

He said no matter who becomes the next president of the Philippines after the May elections, the alliance with the US will continue, as surveys show nine out of 10 Filipinos supporting it.

Kerry hails SC ruling

Before going into their closed door meeting, Kerry voiced his appreciation for the Supreme Court decision, and reaffirmed America’s “ironclad commitment” to the security of the Philippines.

He also pledged to cooperate on all issues affecting regional security, such as territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Carter, for his part, reiterated US intention to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows.

“Our security interests are becoming increasingly intertwined, while we grapple with non-traditional security concerns, and natural and man-made disasters; traditional security challenges to include territorial and maritime disputes remain to be fundamental concerns,” Gazmin said.

He maintained it is timely for the Philippines and the US to “focus on building a credible defense posture and enhancing interoperability for territorial defense, maritime security and maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.”

In his opening address to the 2+2 ministerial meeting, Gazmin said the Philippines looks forward to “deepening our strategic partnership and ensure that we maintain an effective alliance that is responsive to the challenges of the 21st century.”

In Manila, Foreign Affairs spokesman Charles Jose said the SC decision on EDCA has removed a major stumbling block to greater Philippine-US security cooperation.

“Now that the Supreme Court has decided we can proceed with discussions with the US for arrangement for its full implementation,” he said in an interview on ANC’s “Headstart.”

He also said the trial and conviction of US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton for the killing in October 2014 of transgender Jeffrey “Jennifer” Laude was “proof” that the VFA works.

Easing aggressiveness

Meanwhile, Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. said the SC decision on EDCA would likely ease China’s aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea.

“China will be a bit more cautious in its takeover of our islands in the West Philippine Sea,” Belmonte said.

Palawan Rep. Franz Alvarez called the development “a big help in asserting our territorial rights.”

He expressed hopes EDCA would lead “to an enhanced defense posture in the West Philippine Sea.”

“Ideally, EDCA should enhance our position, our claims, our presence in that area. That should be the test of its effectiveness,” Alvarez said.

He said the Philippines’ “budgetary position does not give it the luxury to boost its defense.”

“The military budget is by and large a payroll budget. In US dollars, the Army budget for 2016 is about a billion and the Air Force’s a third of that, which is small by global standards,” he pointed out.

With the SC’s ruling, it is now incumbent on the government to ensure that the Armed Forces would become fully modernized when President Aquino bows out of office on June 30, Valenzuela City Rep. Sherwin Gatchalian said.

“It’s about time that the AFP upgrade its air and naval assets so that frequent surveillance of the contested islands in the West Philippine Sea can be conducted. It’s really lamentable that our country lags behind in terms of modern planes and ships compared to other claimant nations in the Spratlys,” Gatchalian pointed out.

He deplored the military’s not having enough aircraft to conduct regular patrols over the West Philippines Sea and that the few planes that the AFP has are not even fitted with basic surface and air surveillance radar.

“If and when our AFP becomes modernized in terms of state-of-the-art tanks, fighter jets and war ships, we are sure that our Army, Air Force and Navy will be one of the best in this part of Asia. Most importantly, we can defend our vast territorial waters from foreign incursions,” Gatchalian said.

While modern equipment are necessary, soldiers and personnel remain to be the most important component of a military.

“Without proper training, high morale and patriotism, no amount of modern weapons can make our soldiers the best that they can be,” Gatchalian said. – Jaime Laude, Paolo Romero, Pia Lee-Brago













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