Enhanced cooperation

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

With the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA between the Philippines and United States, a common question is whether Uncle Sam will now be more inclined to stop Chinese expansionist activities in disputed waters.

Among expats from several countries with whom I have chatted recently, the betting is that there will be little change, especially while the Philippines’ arbitration case is pending in The Hague.

The 10-year period started running when the agreement was signed, so EDCA is now nearing two years old. During that period, China rapidly built artificial islands on reefs we are claiming in the South China Sea. Recently, it began landing civilian planes on its newly completed airstrip on Fiery Cross or Kagitingan Reef. Beijing is said to be building a submarine station in one of the artificial islands.

Uncle Sam didn’t need access to anybody’s military base to stop all that Chinese reef reclamation. But the US didn’t do anything to stop the activities, except to regularly issue statements about freedom of navigation and behaving by international rules.

Even with the passage of EDCA, it’s doubtful that Washington will do anything to stop the Chinese reclamation while waiting for the ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal on the Philippines’ maritime entitlements.

Based on previous cases involving Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, the betting is that the tribunal will rule in our favor. Whether China will abide by the ruling is anybody’s guess. I don’t think even the Chinese leadership is sure of its course at this point. We like to joke that the Philippines will end up owning that airstrip on Kagitingan, which is starting to look better than the NAIA.

But we can’t count on EDCA to, so to speak, deliver us from evil. It’s good to have a powerful ally, but we must also work on our self-reliance for long-term credible defense and survival. We need to invest in developing our own self-defense capability. Filipinos have the brains, the innovation, and we can have the resources if we work hard enough. Japan did it after the war; China is doing it now.

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With 10 justices voting to uphold the validity of EDCA as an executive agreement, the Supreme Court is unlikely to reverse its ruling, so the deal is expected to finally be implemented.

EDCA strengthens security cooperation between the two countries, and allows the US to station more troops here and position military hardware for operations within the region.

The access to Philippine facilities that the US will enjoy under EDCA boosts Washington’s pivot to Asia and enhances its presence in a region where China is moving aggressively to assert dominance.

But EDCA is not like the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the US and Japan. That one specifically binds the US to come to Japan’s defense in case of external attack. In 2012, Washington said the treaty covered the Senkaku Islands, which are being claimed by China. And in April 2014, US President Barack Obama categorically declared that the US would defend the Senkakus from armed attack.

In our case, the US has merely said it is not a party to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and would prefer a peaceful settlement. Washington has mainly expressed support for the arbitration case that we have brought before the Arbitral Court in the Netherlands.

* * *

EDCA specifically states that the US will not set up permanent military bases here, won’t bring in nukes, and will give the Philippine military full control over facilities that US forces will use.

Ticklish issues during the negotiations may still bedevil the implementation of the EDCA, which the Supreme Court deemed an executive agreement requiring no ratification by our Senate.

One issue is financing for facilities that will be set up for the “increased rotational presence” of US troops within Philippine military installations. Will Uncle Sam provide the funds, expected to be substantial, and how will this affect Philippine control over the facilities? US taxpayers want accountability for the use of their money by their government.

Another is the command structure within the facilities where US troops will be stationed on rotation, possibly for three to six months. While the EDCA provides that the Philippines will have full control over the facilities, members of different armed forces have their own dynamics.

US troops were in fact stationed on rotation at Camp Navarro / Edwin Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga City for 13 years, from January 2002. I don’t remember any command problems being reported. The Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF)-Philippines was comprised of special forces from all the major US military services: the Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Special Operations Forces and Air Force Commandos.

In the course of counterterrorism training and intel activities in Mindanao, JSOTF-P lost 17 men, 10 of them when a Chinook helicopter (call sign “Wild 42”) went down in the Bohol Sea while returning from a mission in Basilan on Feb. 22, 2002.

In February last year, JSOTF-P was deactivated, although some of its personnel continued to provide assistance to Philippine security forces.

At its peak, JSOTF-P had only about 600 men. The rotational structure envisioned under EDCA is likely to be a much larger deployment and the command structure more complicated.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin signed the EDCA with US Ambassador Philip Goldberg on April 28, 2014, when Obama was visiting Manila. Legal challenges were expected by both parties, but these were complicated by the killing of transgender Jeffrey Laude by visiting US Marine Joseph Scott Pemberton in October of the same year.

The Americans had hoped for a Supreme Court ruling when Obama returned for the leaders’ summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last November, but the SC had too many other items on its plate, mostly election-related.

While waiting for the SC to act, the Americans scouted around for facilities where they want access for their troops: their former naval base in Subic Bay, their former air base in Clark Field, and Philippine military bases in Palawan and Cebu.

With the uncertainty hanging over EDCA, little has moved since then. Now that the uncertainty is lifted, we should avoid looking at the treaty as the answer to all our security needs.

While we need all the help we can get in dealing with an aggressive neighbor, we cannot revive a mindset of heavy dependence on others for our own defense.

* * *

SNAIL MAIL: Christmas cards, letters to the editor and invitations sent to me by snail mail as far back as November from various parts of Metro Manila finally reached our office yesterday. A colleague also received a letter yesterday greeting him on his birthday, which was in May 2015. The envelopes bore stamp marks dated Jan. 6, 2016.

We’re only a few blocks away from the main office of the Philippine Postal Corp. PhlPost cannot use the holiday rush as an excuse for this atrocious service, since the digital age has drastically reduced the number of people still using snail mail. PhlPost has more responsibilities than merely manufacturing cute commemorative stamps.

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