Philippines-US Security Relations: Deepening the Alliance

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by Julio S. Amador III and Karla Mae Pabeliña

East Asia and the wider Asia Pacific is becoming the global political, security, and economic theater. With two of the world’s largest economies, and a number of other growing economies, the region is getting the attention it deserves.

China’s continuing rise as a global economic and political power brings with it opportunities that its neighbors would like to ride on for their own economic development. This rise, however, also brings with it some geostrategic changes.

Despite China’s status as an economic giant, its neighbors rely on an external security guarantor, like the United States, to ensure peace and stability in the region. With its system of alliances, and its economic and political network in East Asia, the US has had a continuing presence in the region even if at some point it has not been as active as it should have been. With its rebalance to Asia, the US has recognized that it needs to be more active in engaging its partners and allies if it truly wants to take a leading role in the continuing rise of the region.

The Philippines’ own role in this so-called Asia Pacific Century has not yet been fully defined. For the past few decades, its domestic problems have made it look inward and it has not given enough attention to the changes in the regional and global strategic environment. Among other major challenges, the Philippines needs to attain minimum defense credibility, enhance its maritime domain awareness, improve its capacity to enforce its laws over its waters, and cooperate on traditional and non-traditional security issues such as humanitarian action and disaster response with other countries on the same level.

To this end, the Philippines has been finding ways to work with other like-minded states to attain its security goals. The country’s policymakers have started the process of having its armed forces focus on meeting the challenges to external security. Whereas before, the military had been focused on internal threats posed by insurgents and extremist groups, due attention is now being given to the military’s primary task: defending the Philippines from external aggression. It should be emphasized that any self-respecting country has to have a modern military equipped to deal with traditional and non-traditional threats to security. This is why a host of states in East Asia have been significantly spending on a military hardware and software to meet new challenges.

Being treaty allies, the Philippines and the US have been working together on issues where their interests converge. Other countries, especially in Southeast Asia look to the Philippines to ensure that the US’ commitment to this part of the world does not falter. The US in turn is finding out that engaging with its long-standing ally is one of the tests of the success of the rebalance strategy.

Obama’s visit

US President Barack Obama, under whose leadership the rebalance has taken place, is visiting 4 East Asian countries: 3 of which (Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines) are treaty allies. The visits are part of the ongoing commitment of the US to increase its diplomatic, economic and security ties in the Asia-Pacific as indicated in its “pivot to Asia” strategy. The upcoming visit of President Obama to the Philippines on April 28 is therefore being met with increasing optimism, as the country has been seeking reassurance from its ally that it will not falter in its interest in East Asia’s stability. Obama’s visit will highlight both economic and security cooperation between the two countries through the modernization of the defense alliance, expansion of economic relations, and enduring people-to-people ties. It reaffirms the ‘special relationship’ of the two countries marked by shared history, common values, a commitment to freedom and democracy.

Some sectors in the Philippines, however, are questioning this, especially with the conclusion of the 8th round of negotiations for the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA weeks before this scheduled visit. The Philippine negotiating panel recently submitted to President Benigno Aquino III the draft provisions of the key points of the EDCA for review. Whether the EDCA will be signed during Obama’s visit is yet to be confirmed but critics have been harping that the agreement is being rushed to present the US president with a proverbial gift.

What is the EDCA?

The proposed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, features a reconfiguration of the Philippine-US bilateral security partnership towards the development of a minimum credible defense posture in light of the changing geostrategic environment. It is envisioned to maintain and develop both countries’ individual and collective defense capacities in the Pacific region in furtherance of the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Under the EDCA, the US military will be allowed access to and use of delineated portions of some facilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to undertake high-impact and high-value security cooperation exercises, joint and combined training activities which promote interoperability and capacity building. The EDCA will also bolster humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR).

The EDCA comes at a critical time marked by heightened tensions in the West Philippine Sea. On March 30, the Philippines submitted a 10-volume memorial detailing it arguments and evidence against China’s nine-dash line at the international tribunal. A day before this submission, two Chinese ships reportedly harassed Philippines ships carrying journalists and Philippine Marines at the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. Indeed, with China becoming more assertive, the proposed enhanced defense cooperation agreement is believed to provide a much-needed and timely support for AFP modernization. Given the current state of the military, and apparent lack of political and public will to rally behind a more credible defense capacity, the Philippines needs to work harder to increase its capacity to absorb significant foreign military assistance.

Because of the long-standing communist insurgency and secessionist movements in Mindanao, the Philippines has single-mindedly concentrated on the internal security for the past few decades. Furthermore, until recently, the Philippines rested comfortably under the US security umbrella in face of insignificant external threats. Even when theUS pulledout all its military personnel on 24 November 1992, following the rejection of the Philippine Senate of the proposed new bases treaty, the budget allocated for external defense has been insufficient. The AFP has very limited budget, with significant percentage allocated for personnel salaries and allowances.

Defense modernization

President Aquino has been pushing for an increased modernization of the AFP in light of geostrategic challenges. He reiterated this objective in his State of the Nation addresses in 2010 and 2013. Consequently, an AFP Long-Term Capability Development Program was instituted, pushing for the immediate shift from internal to external defense and for the development of credible defense capability to protect the country’s maritime borders and territorial claim in the West Philippine Sea. The Aquino administration has embarked on the acquisition of multi-purpose attack vessels, naval helicopters, patrol aircrafts and frigates. Some noteworthy acquisitions include the 2 decommissioned Hamilton-class cutters (BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz) and 12 T/A50 Golden Eagle light attack aircrafts from Korea Aerospace Industries. The Philippines also plans to purchase 3 AW-109 naval helicopters, and 2 Mestral frigates from the Italian Navy. There has also been a marked increase in the Philippine Defense Budget from US$1.9 billion in 2002 to US$2.5 billion in 2012.1

Nonetheless, these acquisitions would not be sufficient to develop a credible defense capability despite the "minimum" requirement. Billions of dollars are needed to be invested into the defense force. Congressional appropriations and AFP modernization funds are never enough to carry through the modernization plans.

Challenges to the EDCA

The US’ desire to maintain a credible presence in the Asia-Pacific region is an opportunity for the Philippines to strengthen its relationship with its ally. With the country’s strategic location, the US is able to effect a global projection of its power, something that has been challenged by the rise of China. The proposed enhanced defense cooperation agreement features a convergence of US and Philippine interests towards robust coordination on issues such as maritime security, disaster response, cyber security and capability development. One main feature of EDCA is the sharing and joint use of delineated portions of specified AFP facilities, including infrastructure that will be constructed by the US military. The Philippines would have ownership of all these buildings and structures, upon completion of their construction. The country would significantly benefit from additional military hardware and capability through the excess defense articles, joint maneuvering, and trainings that will be provided. In case of natural disasters, a more expeditious HA/DR, as shown by the immediate US assistance during the Typhoon Yolanda relief efforts can be expected.

The biggest hurdle for this proposed enhanced defense cooperation agreement is the suspicion of “basing” which is prohibited under Article XVII, Section 25 of the Philippine constitution. UndersecretaryPio Lorenzo Batino, Chair of the Philippine Negotiating Panel, assured that the enhanced defense cooperation agreement would not authorize the establishment of “foreign military bases” because the areas that will be shared with the US military are from the AFP and within AFP facilities. Sovereignty and ownership are thus retained by the AFP within such shared areas.

The 3 defining features of foreign military bases are 1) extraterritoriality, 2) exclusivity, and 3) foreign ownership, and the negotiating panel has insisted that these will not apply to the areas that the US military will share.

Another important question raised is whether Senate concurrence is necessary. The Negotiating Panel insists that in as much that the proposed EDCA merely implements the established national policies indicated in the MDT and the VFA, it can be categorized as an executive agreement that requires only executive ratification to be put into force. Since the entry and visit of US military personnel for exercises and other approved activities have already been authorized by the VFA, which was concurred in by the Senate, the Negotiating Panel has argued that there is no need for EDCA to be submitted for another concurrence by the Senate. It should be noted that since the US Senate will not in all probability treat the EDCA as a treaty, it might be embarrassing for the Philippinesto have the Philippine Senate vote on the EDCA as if it were a treaty while the US side only treats it as an executive agreement.

What’s next?

As part of a democratic process that the country will undoubtedly do well to abide, it is usual and even necessary to subject policies such as the EDCA to robust and rigorous public debates to determine whether national interest is really promoted and protected. Indeed, Filipinos must be made aware of the repercussions of this strategic decision – the Philippine government must explain to the public how this proposed agreement would influence our evolving partnership with the US, affect our relations with China, and shape national security in the years to come.

The US will also need to note that there are underlying political, historical, and economic reasons that make discussions of the presence of foreign troops a passionate subject in this country. US negotiators, of course, are expected to uphold their country’s interest, but they should be aware that Filipinos recognize that the Philippines is important to US strategic considerations. The US therefore must be prepared to give concessions for the Philippines on issues that Philippine negotiating panel have raised during the course of the negotiations.

The attitude towards the EDCA must be that of eyes wide open, under no illusions that we are at parity with great powers, and must consistently uphold the national interest, defined by Secretary Albert del Rosario as the values and principles that the Filipino people shouldespouse. Finally, Filipino leaders have to make decisions based on the national interest and strategic considerations. Debate and dialogue should be welcomed but at ultimately, leadership requires making unpopular decisions. As the world’s economic and political order continues to change, foresight from the Philippines’ leaders is required, so that hard decisions taken today may bear positive fruits in the years to come.

Defense Intelligence Organization, Defense Economic Trends in the Asia-Pacific 2013, http://www.defence.gov.au/dio/documents/DET_11.pdf

Julio S. Amador III and Karla Mae Pabeliña are Foreign Affairs Research Specialists at the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies of the Foreign Service Institute. The views in this essay belong to the authors alone and do not represent the official stand of FSI, the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the Republic of the Philippines.

This article was first published on Rappler.com, April 27, 2014.