Philippines re-embraces US military muscle

New defence pact is a countermeasure to China, but increases risk of conflict in South China Sea

America and the Philippines are set to implement the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The new agreement aims to revitalise bilateral security cooperation between the two allies in the light of growing Chinese territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea.

The Philippines hopes to stave off further Chinese incursions into its claimed waters by augmenting its military alliance with the United States, which is set to enjoy extensive access to Philippine bases embracing the South China Sea.

Obviously, a growing American military footprint in the region carries the risk of creating the opposite effect, encouraging China to further fortify its position across contested waters. But the Philippines believes it is running out of time, and that American military muscle is its best hope to protect its territorial interests.

Shortly after China conducted a series of test flights on its newly constructed airfield in the Fiery Cross, a disputed feature at the heart of the Spratly chain of islands, members of the Philippine Supreme Court overwhelmingly voted in favour of the implementation of the EDCA. The high court junked petitions that portrayed the agreement as unconstitutional for supposed violation of the Philippines' national sovereignty.

Agreeing with the position of the Benigno Aquino administration, the Philippines' highest court characterised the pact as an Executive Agreement, which does not require senate concurrence. The Philippine Senate had characterised the EDCA as a treaty agreement that demands ratification of the Upper Chamber.

A submarine crew mooring the USS Topeka at Subic port, the Philippines, last Tuesday. A new pact between the Philippines and the US will give the US access to military bases like Subic, Clark and Oyster Bay, which are close to disputed areas in the S
A submarine crew mooring the USS Topeka at Subic port, the Philippines, last Tuesday. A new pact between the Philippines and the US will give the US access to military bases like Subic, Clark and Oyster Bay, which are close to disputed areas in the South China Sea. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Despite the legal squabble, both the Philippine security establishment and the majority of citizens view the EDCA as an urgent and necessary measure to augment the Philippines' position in the South China Sea.

Crucially, the Supreme Court decision came shortly before the annual Two-Plus-Two Ministerial Dialogue earlier this month between the defence and foreign affairs ministers of the Philippines and the US.

In a joint statement, the two allies "reaffirmed their commitment to continue strengthening the Philippine-US Alliance, in terms of ensuring both countries' mutual defence and security as well as jointly contributing to regional peace, stability and economic prosperity".

China did not waste any time in lashing back at what it perceives as a threat to its interests.

The Xinhua News Agency accused the Philippines of "turning to Uncle Sam to back its ambition to counter China", warning that Manila will "bear the negative consequences of its stupid move in the future".

It called on the Philippines to solve "disputes with China through negotiations without seeking help from a third party".

In contrast to the Cold War period, the EDCA is not going to re-establish permanent American bases in the Philippines. American forces will have rotational, conditional access to mutually agreed upon bases across the Philippines for the next decade. The pact provides both forward operations sites and cooperative security locations, with eight highly prized Philippine military bases up for grabs, including Subic, Clark and Oyster Bay, which are close to disputed areas in the South China Sea.

The Philippines is expected to shoulder transport and utility costs associated with the operations of visiting forces. There will be no large rent payment for basing access, and there is nothing in the EDCA that compels Washington to intervene in the South China Sea disputes in favour of Manila. In short, America is going to enjoy a low-cost, flexible and expanded military footprint in the Philippines - a critical component of its broader Pivot-to-Asia policy.

The outgoing Aquino administration, however, hopes that this footprint will serve as a latent deterrence against Chinese maritime ambitions.

In more tangible terms, the EDCA will facilitate the expansion of joint military exercises, transfer of increasingly advanced military hardware to the Philippine Armed Forces and enhancement of interoperability between the two allies. The two allies are also looking at ways to coordinate their maritime security policies, including a proposal for joint patrols by the American and Philippine navies in the South China Sea, particularly close to land features occupied by China.

So the Philippines and the US are opting for more muscular countermeasures against China, which has been building a network of advanced airstrips and dual-purpose facilities on artificially created islands in the South China Sea.

But as Chinese scholar Zhu Feng of Nanjing University warned: "The South China Sea will be more crowded, and the risk for a military conflict will continue to rise."

Ultimately, the EDCA carries the risk of transforming the South China Sea disputes into a full-fledged great power rivalry, further complicating the disputes and undermining efforts by regional bodies to find a peaceful, diplomatic solution.

China could very well respond by accelerating and expanding its reclamation activities on, and deployment of, military assets to disputed land features.

China could also further harden its diplomatic position on the issue. With Laos, a close Chinese ally, taking over the chairmanship of Asean, there is a lingering fear that Beijing will effectively try to torpedo any effort at negotiating a common regional stance on the South China Sea disputes.

What is clear is that Beijing's smaller neighbours are desperately scrambling for any means to counter what they perceive as Chinese revanchist behaviour, even if it means welcoming back foreign troops on their soil a la Cold War period.

• The writer is a political science professor at De La Salle University in the Philippines.

•S .E.A. View is a weekly column on South-east Asian affairs.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 21, 2016, with the headline Philippines re-embraces US military muscle. Subscribe