By ALFRED GABOT and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE
Editor in Chief and Managing Editor
WASHINGTON/MANILA – As tension remains high in the Indo Pacific region, the Philippines and the United States announced the location of four more military bases to be used by American troops, two of them in Cagayan and Isabela provinces in Northern Philippines near Taiwan and another near the hotly disputed South China Sea.
This as the US and the Philippines, together with Japan, South Korean, Australia and New Zealand, are in frantic preparations for their biggest military exercises under “Balikatan 2023” with almost 20,000 soldiers participating together with war ships, missiles and other military materials. “Balikatan” which comes after the just concluded “Salaknib” Army drills between US and the Philippines will start after the Holy Week.
In Washington, a high-level meeting between the Defense and Foreign Ministers of the US and the Philippine governments will open on April 11 to tackle security and economic matters.
Senior Undersecretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Department of National Defense officer in charge, and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo will meet with their American counterpart US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., in an event of the Philippine Air Force attended by American officials at Clark Freeport, a former US Air Force base, admitted that the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea tension “was not cooling down.”
Tension between China and the Philippines continues, Marcos said, due to claims in the South China Sea, with the recent escalation on February 6 when a China Coast Guard vessel aimed a “military-grade” laser on the Philippine Coast Guard’s vessel near the Ayungin Shoal.
Addressing the troops at the Clark Air Base, the President said his administration is “very serious” in upgrading the capabilities, especially of the Philippine Air Force (PAF), “as they constitute the first line of defense with the situation that we are facing now over the West Philippine Sea.”
Malacañang said the four additional “suitable and mutually beneficial” locations for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Sta. Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; and Balabac Island in Palawan.
The four bases have been inspected and assessed by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), adding the four locations are seen to boost the disaster response of the country as they will also be used for humanitarian and relief operations during emergencies and natural disasters.
President Marcos announced last month that Filipino and American officials have agreed on the four new sites, with the main goal to defend the country’s eastern coast.
Marcos granted US troops access to four more Philippine military camps on top of the five existing locations under the EDCA in February.
The five are Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City.
To overcome opposition from some local government units (LGUs) not keen on hosting US forces and equipment, Marcos talked to local officials and explained the importance of the EDCA sites in their jurisdictions.
DND chief Carlito Galvez Jr. said he is thankful to the Chief Executive for giving him authority to announce the four new EDCA sites.
Washington also announced the four new bases since their American counterparts have been waiting for the announcement so that their Congress can allocate the necessary budget.
“Actually ‘yan ang hinihintay ng ating (that announcement is being anticipated by our) counterparts so that (they) can immediately make necessary recommendations (to their) Congress, kasi (because) it will be budgeted by their Congress. The earlier it will be announced, the faster it will be,” he added.
Galvez said the new EDCA sites are “very strategic”, especially the Naval Base Camilo Osias and the one in Balabac Island.
In the case of Balabac Island, Galvez said the location is near the so-called “SLOC” (sea lanes of communications) which is a major shipping route.
He added that the new EDCA locations are beneficial to the country as this will provide “all-around security.”
Earlier, DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said the EDCA sites would not be American military bases but storage and warehouse facilities for military logistics.
The Pentagon announced that the United States and the Philippines have agreed to review the full range of their maritime cooperation in the 2 + 2 meeting in Washington DC starting April 11.
The EDCA, signed in 2014, allows US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, and the right to build facilities and preposition equipment, aircraft and vessels, but rules out permanent basing.
It is a key pillar of the US-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training, exercises and interoperability between Filipino and American forces.
“Aside from enhancing our posturing of forces to address both external and internal security threats and challenges, we expect the construction of facilities and infrastructure upgrades to further help us ensure the welfare of our people,” Galvez said.
He said the AFP’s “strengthened presence” in the new locations, especially along the country’s eastern and western seaboards, would enable Filipino troops to respond quickly to distress calls.
This will also allow these units to protect Filipino fishermen’s rights and livelihood in Philippine waters, he added.
According to the DND and the AFP, the implementation of projects under the EDCA is aligned with the Philippines’ efforts to modernize its alliance with the US to respond effectively to future security challenges, including disasters, humanitarian assistance, and climate change.
“The new EDCA sites will not just strengthen the AFP’s capability to protect the people and the state but it will also boost the disaster response capability of the country,” AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Andres C. Centino said.
Centino said they would closely coordinate with their counterparts in the US Armed Forces for the “realization” of these objectives.
Galvez further noted that the Philippines would continue to pursue efforts with the US and other like-minded nations towards “collective defense in order to maintain peace, freedom of movement, and prosperity.”
“Accelerated implementation of EDCA, including the addition of agreed locations, also aims to protect the busy sea lanes of commerce along the West Philippine Sea, and our national interests along the eastern side and the Philippine Rise,” he said.
EDCA projects are also seen to benefit the Philippines economically through the provision of jobs and other economic opportunities in the construction activities in the agreed locations and procurement of local goods and supplies by the US military and personnel, Galvez said.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States does not carry unlimited access to agreed locations, the Department of National Defense (DND) clarified Saturday.
DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong said the use of EDCA sites must be mutually agreed upon by both countries.
“There are constant consultations with the Mutual Defense Board and Security Exchange Board wherein the US side and the Philippine side are in discussion to plan out activities and these activities determine when the sites are going to be used, how they will be used, what can be brought in, and what they will do in the sites, so it’s not unlimited,” he said.
The EDCA, which allows American troops to access so-called agreed locations in the Philippines on rotation, is effective for an initial term of 10 years unless terminated by either party.
While the US is allowed to put troops and store equipment, supplies, and materiel, the Philippines retains ownership of all agreed locations.
Andolong added that EDCA locations could also be used for “exercises or in the event of contingencies like disaster and typhoons” but not as permanent basing facilities.