While, to some extent, the EDCA may offer a deterrence factor for the Philippines, Manila would be committing a grave blunder by taking this agreement at face value.
The U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed on April 28th, 2014, is seen by many as a lopsided deal, rather than a mutually beneficial framework. Senior politicians in the Manila Senate also view it as completely disregarding the historic senate vote ending the era of United States bases on September 16th, 1991. An amended additional protocol to the original 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), wherein both Washington and Manila agreed to support each other in the event of an external attack, the EDCA comes at a time of increased diplomatic disharmony in the region, vis-à-vis the South China Sea territorial dispute, and is believed to be Manila’s attempt at securing U.S. backing in its spat with Beijing. But whether this alliance is fruitful for both the issue at hand and on the whole, are different questions.
Manila’s Assumed Interest and Actual Benefit
Since the 1980s, Philippine governments have tried to include Manila’s South China Sea (SCS) territorial claims in the scope of the MDT with the United States. However, the absence of any such clause has constantly left the Philippines feeling cheated by the defense agreement’s inability to deal with the one issue of primary interest to Manila. In the Scarborough Shoal incident of 2012, when Beijing and Manila had a slight altercation over the jurisdiction of the shoal, Washington’s role as a mediator may have influenced Manila to allow the U.S. to play a greater part in its current territorial dispute.
On the other hand, having an organized U.S. military presence on the islands will serve to mitigate some logistical issues in the wider and mutually beneficial U.S.-Philippine bilateral relationship. This agreement will permit the U.S. military to engage the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in frequent joint military exercises, training its personnel, and assisting in modernization efforts. The presence of American forces will also guarantee additional maritime security, domain awareness, and surveillance intelligence shared with the Philippines. Furthermore, disaster relief capabilities available to the Philippine government will be greatly enhanced. Typhoon Yolanda in November 2013 saw extensive American disaster management support extended to Manila. Future natural disasters in the Philippines will see an even quicker response.
Flaws in Aquino Government’s Judgment
With the conclusion of this agreement, Manila is gingerly circumventing the constitutional ban of 1991, which prohibits installation of permanent U.S. bases in the Philippines. This may be seen as a sign of desperate measure, exemplified by what Gen. Emmanuel Bautista (Chief of the AFP) has said on the issue: “We want to avoid conflict, that is why we need to establish a credible deterrence. We don’t have the wherewithal to do that and so what is the practical solution for us? It is to leverage on our alliance. We only have one treaty ally, that is the U.S.,” Bautista told the Inquirer. In short, Manila is operationalizing the MDT, in the hope of using it as a cushion against potential backlash for the South China Sea dispute. This has led to several senior politicians metaphorizing the U.S.-Philippine deal as “akin to that of an unequal and exploitative love affair.” Many are not ready to accept the U.S.’s blatant promise of support for its ‘oldest ally in Asia’. There will always be the question of political consensus for any such move in the U.S. Senate, with budget constraints and public opinion ultimately determining the extent of resources that Washington would want to commit to this cause. The United States and China also have close bilateral trade relations, which far outweigh whatever alliance the U.S. and Philippines share. Manila would be delusional if it believes the U.S. would give up on this association, to protect the Philippines from a Chinese territorial threat.
Washington’s Standpoint and Benefits
President Obama’s ambiguous silence on the issue of the SCS further validates the concerns raised by the senior Philippine politicians. On his recent visit to Manila, Obama merely expressed support for the Philippine government’s approach of seeking arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for its dispute with China, only restating the U.S. stand that “international law must be upheld, the freedom of navigation must be preserved and commerce must not be impeded.” However, he explicitly stated that the U.S.-Philippine agreement was not aimed at countering or containing China, but to ensure just governance in accordance with international laws and norms.
By stationing troops on the island nation, Washington adds to its ready naval presence in the Asia-Pacific and allows Washington to operate temporary military bases around the Philippines, free of cost, with the provision for Manila to own all infrastructure constructed, post troop withdrawal at the end of 10 years. This is an exceptional deal for the United States.
While, to some extent, the EDCA may offer a deterrence factor for the Philippines, Manila would be committing a grave blunder by taking this agreement at face value. A much more feasible approach to this arrangement would be to regard this period as a short-term window of security. Manila should review its defense strategy and its foreign policy with regards to its geopolitics and test the waters lightly, while Washington is still riding on the success of pushing through the EDCA. Any assumption of a U.S. military intervention in territorial disputes between China and the Philippines would be premature. Enhancing and developing Manila’s own national security framework is the best bet for President Aquino.
Amit R. Saksena
Amit R. Saksena is a post-graduate scholar at the Jindal School of International Affairs.
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