Defense, DFA execs grilled at Senate’s inquiry on EDCA


SENATORS on Wednesday grilled defense and foreign affairs officials on the recently expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), exacting a commitment from them that the pseudo-basing agreement will not in any way dilute the efforts to modernize the Philippine Armed Forces, nor change any part of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.

Committee on Foreign Relations chairperson Sen. Imee Marcos led the Senate panel’s inquiry on the 2014 defense agreement, given the heightened anxiety in the region as the US and China engage in a continuing word war over Taiwan.

Sen. Marcos questioned the intent of the alliance vis-a-vis the government’s plan to build more EDCA bases, saying the sites chosen were “random and no longer purposeful” with regard to the efforts to modernize the Philippines’s armed forces.

Modernization, she stressed, should be the primary goal in the EDCA’s implementation, besides disaster preparedness, maritime security and counterterrorism. “Are we going to just rely on foreigners to defend us while our armed forces remain neglected, outdated . . .and completely abject in the face of any external threats?” Marcos asked in mixed Filipino and English.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino “Koko” Pimentel III said the additional four sites and the present negotiation of the Philippine government with the United States regarding the EDCA do not intend to change any word or provision in the agreement.

Pimentel made the statement to clarify that the present EDCA agreement will not be changed and that the extent of PH-US military exercises are only addendum to the existing agreement.

“When we are discussing with our counterparts, the end product is an annex to EDCA, so we don’t even attempt to change the terms of EDCA, this is just an annex to be cleared…we are making the commitment that no matter how extensive the discussions are, there will be no attempt, desires, or intention to change any word in EDCA or the agreement,” Pimentel said.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has sought to strengthen the country’s maritime security capabilities and improve its defense network in the region through the alliance and enhanced military activities with the US. But while Manila’s reliance on its MDT treaty ally is normally seen as necessary given China’s expansion in the West Philippine Sea, some quarters—including Senator Marcos—have noted that the newly tagged EDCA sites appear more focused on building a flank for US forces in the Taiwan Strait than for bolstering Philippine maritime defense in WPS.

For his part, Senator Sherwin Gatchalian scrutinized the reason and criteria for choosing the locations where the US troops will have access to EDCA. At least four locations had earlier been identified as additional sites: Camilo Osias Naval Base in Sta. Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan; Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; and Balabac Island in Palawan.

Gatchalian wondered whether the four EDCA sites are really strategic for the Philippines and the Filipino people and not strategic for the United States.

If the end-goal of EDCA is for humanitarian and disaster-response purposes, Gatchalian noted that other areas are more disaster-prone than the four locations chosen as additional EDCA sites for purposes of quick response. “That’s why I’m looking for the end-goal. If the end-goal is to help capacitate ourselves or to ward off terrorism, I assume that the [EDCA] sites will be located in areas where we need to strengthen our capacities.”

National Security Adviser Carlito Galvez, Jr. explained the reasons for choosing the four additional EDCA sites.

Joining him in defending EDCA was Foreign Affairs Sec. Enrique Manalo, who assured  Senator Marcos that the DFA was not sitting on a request by China to hold joint patrols as well with the Philippines.

Manalo explained that the talks are still ongoing, but stressed that Manila is open to having as many joint patrols with countries as possible, to which Marcos agreed, saying, “wala naman tayong kaaway sa Barangay Asya [We have no enemies in Asia].”

Image credits: Voltaire F. Domingo/Senate PRIB