US gets greater access to Philippine military facilities

Pia Lee-Brago, Ralph Edwin Villanueva - The Philippine Star
US gets greater access to Philippine military facilities
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III (L) talks beside his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr. at a joint press conference in Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in metro Manila on February 2, 2023.
Joeal Calupitan / POOL / AFP

4 more ‘agreed sites’ to be picked under EDCA

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines has granted the United States military access to four more sites, the defense chiefs of the two countries said yesterday, amid mounting concern over China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea and tensions over self-ruled Taiwan.

Washington would be given access to four more locations under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez and visiting US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a joint news conference.

During Austin’s courtesy call at Malacañang earlier yesterday, President Marcos emphasized that the US will always be involved in the future of the Asia-Pacific region.

Austin, who was in the Philippines for talks as Washington seeks to extend its security options in the country as part of efforts to deter any move by China against Taiwan, described Manila’s decision as a “big deal” as he and his counterpart reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering their countries’ alliance. Austin and Galvez did not say where the new locations would be.

But it has been widely reported that most of the new locations will be on the main island of Luzon – the closest Philippine landmass to Taiwan – where the US already has access to two bases.

The fourth will reportedly be on Palawan, facing the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, taking the number of sites there to two.

Before his courtesy call on Marcos, Austin met with Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año. Malacañang has yet to release details of the meeting.

“The Philippines and the United States are proud to announce their plans to accelerate the full implementation of the (EDCA) with the agreement to designate four new Agreed Locations in strategic areas of the country and the substantial completion of the projects in the existing five Agreed Locations,” their joint statement said.

“The Philippine-US Alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad. We look forward to the opportunities these new sites will create to expand our cooperation together,” it added.

“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Austin, whose visit followed US Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to the Philippines in November, which included a stop in Palawan in the South China Sea.

“We discussed concrete actions to address destabilizing activities in the waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea, and we remain committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack,” Austin said.

“That’s just part of our efforts to modernize our alliance. And these efforts are especially important as People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

$82-M investments

The additional locations under the EDCA bring to nine the number of military bases the US would have access to, and Washington had announced it was allocating more than $82 million for infrastructure investments at the existing sites.

The EDCA allows US access to Philippine military bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and the building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not a permanent presence.

Galvez, a former military chief, had said the US had requested access to bases on Northern Luzon, closest to Taiwan, and on Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

There was no immediate comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila.

Outside the military headquarters, dozens of protesters opposed to the United States maintaining a military presence in the country chanted anti-US slogans and called for the EDCA to be scrapped.

Ties between the US and the Philippines, a former colony, were soured by predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s overtures toward China, his famous anti-US rhetoric and threats to downgrade their military ties.

But Marcos has met with US President Joe Biden twice since his landslide victory in the elections last year and reiterated he cannot see a future for his country without its longtime treaty ally.

“I have always said, it seems to me, the future of the Philippines and for that matter the Asia Pacific will always have to involve the United States,” Marcos told Austin.

A senior US defense official noted that the presence of US forces in the Philippines, upon the invitation of the government, is a show of true partnership.

“What we’re doing with Philippines is working with them,” the official said in a news release in the US Defense Department website.

“So that together as an alliance, we can help ensure their future, and so they have the capability to defend their own sovereignty and prevent the kind of coercion that they’re facing on a day-to-day basis,” the official added.

China, the official said, is the nation doing the coercion, even after losing a landmark ruling at an international tribunal in 2016. The tribunal in The Hague ruled that China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea were illegal according to international law.

“What the Philippines is trying to do, is uphold its rights,” the official said. “And we’re trying to help them do that in the same way we are with other partners around the region. That’s what this is really about, not about simply countering China.”

‘Terribly complicated’

In his opening remarks during Austin’s courtesy call, Marcos said the situation in the Asia Pacific region has become “terribly complicated” and its “troubled waters” could only be navigated properly with the help of partners and allies in the international sphere.

He described the ties between the Philippines and its “longest partner and ally” as “strong” and “so historically embedded in our common psyches.”

“And as we traverse these rather troubled waters, geopolitical waters, the economic waters that we are facing, I again put great importance on that partnership specifically with the United States but all partnerships and alliances that we are able to make with our friends around the world,” the President said without elaborating.

“And again, I have always said that it seems to me that the future of the Philippines and for that matter the Asia Pacific will always have to involve the United States simply because those partnerships are so strong and so historically embedded in our common psyches that we can only – it can only be an advantage to both our countries,” he added.

“And so from the defense perspective, we will continue to work together with our great partners to build and modernize your capability as well as increase our interoperability,” Austin said in response to Marcos’ remarks.

In a speech delivered in New York last September, Marcos said he could not imagine the Philippines’ future without the US as its partner.

“Now of course, this has evolved as time has gone on but the strength of that relationship continues. And we envision a further strengthening of those relationships,” Marcos said at a forum at the New York Stock Exchange on Sept. 20.

It was Austin’s second visit to the Philippines. He first visited the country in 2021 during the Duterte administration. In that visit, Austin thanked Duterte for his decision to withdraw the termination letter for the Visiting Forces Agreement.

In 2020, Duterte announced that he would terminate the VFA following the US cancellation of the visa of Sen. Ronald dela Rosa, who – as national police chief – was chief implementer of his administration’s war on drugs.

Malacañang later said other reasons for Duterte’s decision were the US Senate resolution linking his administration to human rights violations, the demand of some American lawmakers to free detained opposition senator Leila de Lima, and the US travel ban on persons behind her detention. Duterte eventually agreed to recall the abrogation of the VFA, an offshoot of the Mutual Defense Treaty signed by the Philippines and the US in 1951.

Westmincom visit

On Wednesday, Austin visited the Western Mindanao Command headquarters in Zamboanga City and discussed with its chief Maj. Gen. Roy Galido ways of further improving interaction between the local military and members of the US Joint Special Operations Task Force 511.2 (JSOTF 511.2).

The JSOTF is a small US military team tasked to provide technical assistance and training to its Filipino counterpart in countering terrorism. Galido said Westmincom was grateful to Austin for the visit.

“This shows how strong is our working relationship and how committed our most powerful ally to help us in addressing our security issues here in southern Philippines,” Galido said, mentioning in particular the campaign against terrorism and insurgency. — Roel Pareño, AFP


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