Philippine, U.S. forces improve defense cooperation

Philippine, U.S. forces improve defense cooperation

Joseph Hammond

United States forces will resume operations at five military bases in the Philippines as part of an updated Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the countries.

Established in 2014 to bolster bilateral cooperation, the EDCA’s full implementation had been in limbo due to uncertainty concerning the broader Philippines-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), of which the EDCA is a supplement. A meeting in mid-September 2021 between Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ended any uncertainty, as the allies reiterated their commitment to improving relations, according to Bloomberg. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in July 2021 also buttressed the long-standing alliance by preserving the VFA. (Pictured: U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Philippine National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana shake hands after meeting at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, Philippines, in July 2021.)

“The EDCA could provide support for the Armed Forces of the Philippines modernization program,” Zhea Katrina Estrada, resident fellow at Manila’s International Development and Security Cooperation think tank, told FORUM. “The prosperity of the mutual defense treaty is something to look forward to.”

Under the terms of the EDCA, the U.S. military can rotate personnel into the Philippines for prolonged periods and develop and manage facilities for U.S. and Philippine personnel on Philippine sites, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Philippine personnel also gain access to U.S. ships and warplanes.

“Manila seeks to promote its effective control in the West Philippine Sea by maximizing its geopolitical projection,” Joshua Bernard Espeña, a Manila-based defense analyst, told FORUM. “Should the EDCA institutionalize down the road, we can expect the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] to learn more in gaining combat preparedness against external threats in the maritime space. Much is at stake in employing forces designed for limited wars, so proximity and time must be taken advantage of.”

Manila and Washington will develop a framework to enhance maritime cooperation and resume projects in the Philippines that were previously approved under the EDCA, according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs. The U.S., meanwhile, recently reinforced its commitment as a treaty ally of the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951.

“We believe and affirm that an armed attack on Philippine Armed Forces, combat vessels or aircraft in the Pacific including in the South China Sea will trigger U.S. obligations under the MDT,” Ambassador Jennifer Zimdahl Galt, senior foreign policy advisor for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said during a September 2021 webinar hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute in the Philippines. “And we fully intend to stand by these obligations.”

The five bases affected by the revamped EDCA are: Antonio Bautista Air Base on the island province of Palawan, near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea; Basa Air Base, northwest of Manila; Fort Magsaysay on the northern island of Luzon; Lumbia Air Base on the southern island of Mindanao; and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base on Mactan Island in the central Philippines.