April 5, 2023
MANILA — The US Department of Defense said the new sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) with the Philippines were aimed at “regional readiness” to address “a range of shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region” amid concerns over China’s continued assertiveness in the South China Sea and its potential invasion of Taiwan.
The Philippines and the United States on Monday identified four additional locations — including three facing Taiwan and one near Chinese artificial military outposts in the West Philippine Sea — that would allow an expansion of American military presence from the five existing sites under the defense pact signed in 2014.
“These new locations will strengthen the interoperability of the [US] and Philippine armed forces and allow us to respond more seamlessly together to address a range of shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including natural and humanitarian disasters,” Pentagon Deputy Press Secretary Sabrina Singh said in a press briefing in Washington on Monday (Tuesday in Manila).
The four new sites are the Camilo Osias Naval Base in Santa Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport also in Cagayan; Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; and Balabac Island in Palawan.
The Pentagon official stressed that the United States was not seeking permanent basing, pointing out that “this is really about regional readiness.”
“So you’re going to see an increase of rotational forces in the region, but this is more about supporting combined training, being able to respond to natural disaster, humanitarian disasters in the region,” she explained.
The United States will be pouring more funds into the new Edca sites on top of the $82 million already allocated to the existing ones, namely Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan, Cebu.
The Pentagon said the US defense department would work closely with its Philippine counterpart to pursue modernization projects in the new locations.
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning, at a press briefing in Beijing on Tuesday, said the US action “would only lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region.”
“Facts are very clear that the US has been increasing its military deployment in the region driven by a zero-sum mentality in pursuit of selfish interests… Regional countries need to think about what is right for the region and mutually beneficial so as to make a choice that serves regional peace and stability as well as their own interests,” Mao said.
On Tuesday, the armies of the Philippines and the United States wrapped up the first phase of a major exercise that focused on what an Army official had earlier described as a “defense of the archipelago from potential foreign aggressors.”
“We don’t want to have any conflict against anyone. But nevertheless, we should always be prepared should there be one,” the Army’s 5th Infantry Division commander, Maj. Gen. Audrey Pasia, said in his speech at the closing ceremony of the first phase of the Salaknib joint drills, an army-level exercise of the two allies.
“We all live in this tumultuous world where friendship and alliances are still maintained for survival and for the protection of their mutual interests. Let that mutual interest bind us together as we move forward,” he said.
The Salaknib drills are a prelude to the biggest-ever Balikatan joint military exercises set to begin next week with more than 17,000 participating troops.
According to the US Embassy, some 5,400 members of the AFP and 12,200 US military personnel will be part of the 38th Balikatan from April 11 to 28.
During the nearly monthlong exercise, American and Filipino soldiers will be developing interoperability and improved capabilities in the areas of “maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban and aviation operations, cyberdefense, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness.”
“The Balikatan Exercise enhances both the AFP and the US Armed Forces’ tactics, techniques and procedures across a wide range of military operations,” said AFP spokesperson Col. Medel Aguilar.
“It increases our ability to work together effectively and efficiently in response to various crisis situations,” he added.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) described the four new Edca sites as proof of the “robust commitment” between the Philippines and the United States in facing “emerging security challenges in the region.”
“Edca will lead to the construction of facilities and infrastructure upgrades that directly contribute to the enhancement of the capabilities of the [AFP],” the DFA said in a statement.
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario also welcomed the addition of more Edca sites, saying it would help in the enforcement of the rule of law in the South China Sea where there has been an increased presence of Chinese maritime militia vessels even in the waters covered by the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“With the help of our ally, this will also enhance our capabilities to deter aggression against our sovereignty,” Del Rosario said in a statement.
The provincial government of Palawan on Tuesday also adopted a resolution supporting the expansion of Edca to include the town of Balabac “to promote peace security and humanitarian assistance in the Philippines.”
Provincial Board Member Ryan Maminta said Edca had proven to be favorable to the province in terms of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
In Congress, a Makabayan lawmaker warned that the Philippines was now turning into a base of the United States with the expansion of Edca sites.
“There are nine Edca locations which are also bound to increase using whatever pretext like prepositioning, disaster preparedness and the like, inevitably trampling on our sovereignty,” said House Deputy Minority Leader France Castro.
She cited Article 3, Paragraph 2 of Edca, which stated that “when requested, the designated authority of the Philippines shall assist in facilitating transit or temporary access by [US] forces to public land and facilities (including roads, ports and airfields), including those owned or controlled by local governments, and to other land and facilities (including roads, ports and airfields).”
“In other words, we cannot refuse if the US requests access to utilize whatever land or facilities, wherever in the country, including private property,” Castro noted.