WASHINGTON/MANILA (via PhilAmPress) — As the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States signed in the presence of US President Barack Obama in Manila and amid China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, the United States has vowed to strengthen the defense and maritime capabilities of the Philippines as it renewed its “ironclad” commitment to defend its long-time treaty ally against aggression.
The renewal of the pledge first made by Mr. Obama while in Manila in 2014 and repeated by the US President while in Manila last year for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Summit was affirmed at the close of their second high-level talks in Washington on Jan. 12 of the foreign and defense chiefs of the Philippines and US.
In a joint statement, the officials declared the need for stronger military cooperation as China keeps expanding its presence in the waters also contested by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
To enhance security and defense cooperation, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and US Secretary of State John Kerry, together with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, have committed to enhance the Philippines’ maritime security presence and maritime domain awareness.
To demonstrate such commitment, Washington is transferring a third high-endurance cutter and a research vessel to the Philippines this year.
Both sides also agreed to coordinate closely on the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a mutually beneficial agreement that will enhance the United States’ ability to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and help build capacity for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
They have also declared to boost military-to-military cooperation and inter-operability through joint exercises, capacity-building, and intelligence sharing.
The meeting, called Two-Plus-Two Ministerial Dialogue, is the highest level policy consultative mechanism between the Philippine and US governments. This was their first meeting since 2012.
The ministers also discussed regional and global challenges that threaten peace and stability and the rule of law as Del Rosario and Gazmin welcomed the reaffirmation of the ironclad US commitment to the defense the Philippines.
Recently, China conducted two test landings at the Fiery Cross Reef — one of the seven features in the South China Sea that was transformed into artificial islands by Beijing, triggering concerns from the Philippines, Vietnam and US.
In their statement, the ministers underscored the need “for all parties to refrain from provocative, unilateral actions that aim to change the status quo in the South China Sea.”
They also noted that the ruling of the UN Law of the Sea Convention arbitral tribunal on Manila’s case that seeks to invalidate China’s massive sea claim would be legally binding on both China and the Philippines.
The ministers also highlighted the importance of parties taking active steps to reduce tensions, including halting the reclamation, construction on, and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea and to refrain from any actions that harass, coerce, or intimidate other parties in the South China Sea.
“In particular, the Ministers shared concern over recent test flights at Fiery Cross Reef, which exacerbate tensions and are inconsistent with the region’s commitments to exercise restraint from actions that could complicate or escalate disputes,” they said.
The ministers also expressed concern regarding large-scale land reclamation of occupied features, as well as the construction of new facilities and airstrips on them, and their impact on the marine environment, recognizing the importance of the South China Sea to the welfare and livelihoods of the many people who have for generations depended on the living resources of the South China Sea.
In a separate meeting, the Philippines has welcomed the US Senate’s support for President Barack Obama’s maritime security assistance to Asia amid China’s rapidly increasing presence over the waters.
Demonstrating its keen interest in the latest developments in the region, the Senate Armed Services Committee introduced the Maritime Security Initiative in its FY 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that allots US$50 million to help enhance the maritime security capacities of countries in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines.
President Obama first unveiled this maritime assistance plan when he was in Manila for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last November 17.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin also met with Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), Chairman and ranking member of the US Senate Armed Services Committee, respectively, on Jan. 12.
The US committed to maintain its presence in the West Philippine Sea and vowed to ensure freedom of navigation in the disputed waters, according to the officials.Despite the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) being declared constitutional by the Supreme Court (SC), US forces will not be arriving in the Philippines en masse during scheduled military exercises.“We wish to thank the Senate Armed Services Committee for the priority it has accorded to US engagement with Asia-Pacific and for the Committee’s statements calling for stronger US presence in the region,” Del Rosario said on behalf of the Philippine delegation.
In a statement, Defense Spokesperson Peter Paul Galvez said the US stressed during the Philippine-US 2+2 ministerial meeting last Jan. 12 that it will continue to fly and sail whenever and wherever international law allows.
He said the US presence in the disputed waters would include naval, sub-sea, air and special forces.
“The 2+2 meeting extensively discussed the South China Sea issue, with the US side reiterating the US ironclad commitment to the defense of the Philippines while the Philippines batting for joint patrols. The US also conveyed that it remains committed to the AFP’s (Armed Forces of the Philippines) modernization program,” he said.
The US also urged the Philippines to stay closely coordinated with the developments in the West Philippine Sea.
“Noting China’s claim that it will not militarize the area, the US suggested the need for parties in the South China Sea to have a common and shared understanding of the term ‘militarization’ to avoid growing tensions. A common sense among the other parties would put pressure on China,” he added.
Galvez said both the US and the Philippines agreed that maritime security and maritime domain awareness have to rise high on the agenda in PH-US strategic engagement, of which the Maritime Security Initiative is a good project.
Both sides also acknowledged the usefulness of multilateral cooperation in addressing security challenges and agreed to explore the possibility of the participation of other partners such as Japan and Australia in Philippine-US exercises and activities.
The Philippine side stressed that the involvement of other parties in these activities shall be in accordance with the Philippines’ national legal framework.
Col. Restituto Padilla, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman, said the number of participating US troops in any exercises is dependent on the recommendation of the Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB).
“If the assessment of the MDB-SEB (found out that) these are necessary to increase our interoperability then it will be done,” he added.
Possible Filipino military bases to be opened under the EDCA include Fort Magsayay in Nueva Ecija; Crow Valley in Tarlac; Basa Air Base, in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan, Cebu; Camp Lapu-Lapu, Cebu; Camp Macario Peralta in Jamindan, Capiz; Naval Station San Miguel in San Antonio, Zambales, Antonio Bautista Airbase, Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Lumbia Airfield in Cagayan De Oro and Edwin Andrews Air Base in Zamboanga City.
Department of National Defense (DND) spokesman Dr. Peter Paul Galvez earlier said the EDCA will help boost Philippine maritime security and HADR capabilities.
“The DND welcomes the ruling of our SC declaring EDCA constitutional. With this development that builds upon our mutual defense treaty, we look forward to advancing our defense modernization and strengthening maritime Security and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities,” he said.
The SC on Tuesday voted 10-4-1, declaring EDCA as constitutional.
It also upheld the position of the government that the EDCA is an executive agreement and does not need the Senate concurrence.
In the same vein, Galvez said this puts the AFP in a better position to improve interoperability with the US military aside from improving its capabilities.
Finalized after eight rounds of talks that began in August 2013, EDCA, which signed in 2014, allows US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, the right to construct facilities, and pre-position equipment, aircraft and vessels, but rules out permanent basing.