Secretary Austin’s visit reinvigorates US-Phl relations

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

No doubt the visit, the 2nd visit in fact of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, underscores the strong partnership between the United States and the Philippines, coming as it is on the heels of the previous high-level visits of top-ranking US government officials that include Vice President Kamala Harris, State Secretary Antony Blinken and a congressional delegation led by Senator Ed Markey in just a little over six months since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office.

The Pentagon informed us at the Philippine embassy in Washington, DC that Secretary Austin had wanted to include the Philippines in his itinerary, with South Korea as the original destination. We are pleased with the planned visit, especially since we have a new Defense Secretary, Charlie Galvez. The US Defense chief had also indicated he had not had the opportunity to meet President Marcos. The timing was perfect since we had also just finished the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue with the United States which we hosted in Manila the other week.

Following his arrival, Secretary Austin immediately proceeded to Camp General Basilio Navarro in Zamboanga City, where he met with officials of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, including the commander of the Western Mindanao Command (WestMinCom).

He described the visit as “heartwarming” because of the enthusiastic welcome he received from the local soldiers and officials – several of whom attended US military institutions for advance courses – who engaged with him. Of course, the US troops stationed in Zamboanga were also elated at the visit of the former US Army four-star general whose name is legendary among American soldiers, having served as commanding general of US Forces in Iraq.

The courtesy call of Secretary Austin on President Marcos was very timely, and the discussions were very straightforward to a certain extent. The President expressed his deep appreciation for the continued assistance of the US to the Philippines on many aspects of our bilateral relations, especially on the modernization of our armed forces.

As President Marcos himself said, “…the future of the Philippines and, for that matter, the Asia Pacific, will always have to involve the US simply because those partnerships are so strong,” adding that we can only properly navigate geopolitical issues, especially in the Asia Pacific region, “with the help of our partners and our allies in the international sphere.”

Part and parcel of the entire relationship between the United States and the Philippines is our military alliance as underscored by the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). There is absolutely no doubt that the visit of Secretary Austin has reinforced all these agreements, particularly EDCA with four new locations to be added to the existing five that have been previously designated. While details have yet to be finalized, the new EDCA sites will be in very strategic locations.

As described by Greg Poling who is director for the Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington, DC-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies, EDCA “allows US forces to construct facilities at agreed-upon Philippine military bases for the use of both countries… and was meant to facilitate the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in the long term while allowing US forces the access necessary to fulfill its alliance commitments in the short term.”

Part of the agreement threshed out during the visit of Secretary Austin is the allotment of $82 million by the US for infrastructure investments at five current EDCA locations which will support economic growth and jobs generation in local communities.

Discussions about additional locations have been ongoing for the past several months, and one important component would be humanitarian and disaster response (HADR), especially since the Philippines is very vulnerable to natural disasters. We have over 7,600 islands and many of these would require disaster resilience, which is really one of the main reasons why we have agreed to the EDCA as the US would be able to help us develop these areas into becoming disaster resilient.

Definitely, the agreement will also help us in our efforts to be more prepared to deal with natural disasters that may come our way.  As we have seen for ourselves, weather-related disasters are becoming stronger and inflicting so much damage on people and property, with lives also lost in the process.

According to latest reports, the global economic losses due to natural disasters amount to over $313 billion in 2022 alone. The 2022 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released late in January also showed the connection between economic losses due to climate crisis and human trafficking. The report included the Philippines among several nations as examples of how “weather-induced natural disasters can expose communities reliant on fishing, farming and agriculture to higher risk of trafficking.”

To reiterate what I have said during one of my interviews, the EDCA is not directed towards any country. It is part of our defense strategy with the modernization of our armed forces that would in turn enhance our capability to defend and secure our nation and territory from all kinds of threats, both external and internal.

Regardless of what the usual suspects may say, the visit of Secretary Austin has served to reinvigorate the relationship between the United States and the Philippines. As the US Defense chief reiterated, “American commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad.”

I can also say in no uncertain terms that when push comes to shove, we Filipinos are prepared to defend our country.

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