By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief
MANILA/WASHINGTON, September 21, 2023 – The Philippines and the United States, including their allies, appear to be gearing up for possible military confrontation in the West Philippine Sea and the Indo-Pacific.
The PHL-US agreement for the expanded bilateral engagement was made by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) headed by AFP Chief of Staff Romeo Brawner Jr. and the US Indo-Pacific Command (US INDOPACOM) led by Commander Admiral John Aquilino.as they concluded their annual Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB) meeting at the AFP General Headquarters in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.
At the same time, the United States added 63 more projects within the nine Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites to enhance operational capability amid what it said as complex security environment in the Indo-Pacific region.
In a press briefing after the Philippines-United States Mutual Defense Board (MDB) meeting, US Indo-Pacific Commander, Admiral John Aquilino, said the number is up from the 32 that have been approved.
The US has allotted over $100 million for the construction of various facilities intended to modernize the AFP existing camps and increase their operational capability, said Aquino, adding the US and Philippine alliance would ensure free navigation, flights and trade in the Indo Pacific region.
Aquilino said the EDCA sites maybe used to preposition weapons given the current complex security situations not only in the West Philippine Sea but also the tensions between China and Taiwan.
In a related development, contingency plans are being crafted in case armed attacks transpire amid China’s continued incursion in the West Philippine Sea, according to AFP Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations Captain Peter Jempsun de Guzman.
De Guzman made the disclosure during a joint Senate committee public hearing.
In the hearing, Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa prodded de Guzman on how prepared the force would be if an event such as this occurred.
To this, de Guzman answered: “We will be ready when the time comes.”
“We are preparing the necessary contingency plans with the supervision of the Department of National Defense for all eventualities, especially in the ongoing missions in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.
Admiral Margono said the five-day exercise in Indonesia’s Natuna waters aims to boost military ties among the ASEAN nations and enhance interoperability. The drills also involve civilian groups involved in humanitarian relief and disaster prevention.
Months after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. rose to power, the Philippines began pivoting again towards the United States, its traditional allies, after China reneged on its earlier promise to peacefully settle disputes in the strategic waterway.
Manila’s push against Beijing’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea intensified in August after Chinese Coast Guard ships used a water cannon and blocked Philippine resupply vessels from sailing towards an outpost in Ayungin Shoal.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), meanwhile, said it hopes that the government can install more radars and deploy more vessels to help protect the country’s assets in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines has been relying on technology in the West Philippine Sea to counter the illegal activities of China, Asia’s largest economy, which has deployed a more massive fleet to claim nearly the entire South China Sea, said Commodore Jay Tarriela, spokesperson of the PCG.
“Our strategic use of technology has allowed us to counter China’s action,” he said during the Social Good Summit.