The Dangers of Allowing U.S.-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish
On April 17, Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana and U.S. ambassador Sung Kim took part in a groundbreaking ceremony for the first official construction project under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The project to build a warehouse for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief supplies at Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga Province comes more than four years after the two sides inked EDCA, and two years after the Philippine Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality. The ceremony was at once an important milestone, and a sobering reminder of how far short of expectations EDCA has fallen. If implementation of the agreement continues at this rate, the national interests of both the Philippines and the United States will suffer. Without a fully implemented EDCA, the Philippines will likely lose its maritime rights in the South China Sea, either by force or the threat of force from China, and the United States will be seen as a paper tiger unable to protect its allies or defend freedom of the seas.
The Reasons for EDCA
Manila and Washington signed EDCA in 2014 as a vehicle to modernize the U.S.-Philippine alliance to better meet shared challenges In particular, the agreement was meant to help address growing Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and natural disasters in the Philippines, which are projected to become more frequent and more destructive with a changing climate. Less than two years before, China had seized control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines, prompting Manila to file its landmark case against Beijing’s claims before a tribunal at The Hague. In late 2013, the Philippines was hit by Typhoon Yolanda, or Haiyan—the strongest storm on record to make landfall in the country. The U.S. military’s rapid response proved critical in delivering supplies and evacuating the injured from affected areas, and reminded both sides of the public goods that the alliance could offer.
In case there was any doubt about its aims, Article 1 of EDCA says the agreement is meant to ensure that both sides can meet their obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.” The only state actor threatening armed attack against the Philippines or Filipino forces is China in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The shared perception of a Chinese threat to Philippine, and ultimately international, interests in the South China Sea is clearly at the core of the agreement. Article 1 goes on to say that EDCA will focus on
improving interoperability…and for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) addressing short-term capabilities gaps, promoting long-term modernization, and helping maintain and develop additional maritime security, maritime domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capabilities. [emphasis added]
To accomplish these goals, EDCA negotiators agreed that the Philippines would allow U.S. troops and military platforms to access and preposition equipment in certain “agreed locations.” In 2016, Manila and Washington settled on five initial Philippine military bases on which the United States would construct facilities, position equipment, and rotate forces . These were Basa Air Base and Fort Magsaysay, both in Luzon; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Visayas; and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao. The United States would undertake construction of necessary facilities at those locations, to be eventually handed over to the Philippine military. This would allow for more joint training and boost America’s ability to assist with maritime domain awareness, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and other missions in the short and medium-term, while contributing directly to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ long-term modernization and capacity-building efforts.
Four of the five EDCA sites are on Philippine Air Force bases, reflecting the agreement’s focus on maritime domain awareness and security, as well as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, both of which rely heavily on air capabilities that the Philippines is sorely lacking. The fifth, Fort Magsaysay, is the largest military base in the country and the hub for the annual U.S.-Philippines Balikatan joint exercises. The ability to preposition military equipment and rotate more troops there could boost joint training and help modernize the Philippine military.
While each of the five initial locations has certain advantages, Basa and Antonio Bautista Air Bases are most important for accomplishing EDCA’s stated goals (though Mactan and Lumbia could prove important for disaster relief and counter-terror operations, respectively). Most U.S. military aircraft that currently rotate through the country for training or other missions, such as maritime patrol (e.g. P-8 Poseidons that regularly patrol the Spratly Islands) operate from Clark Air Base north of Manila. Basa would provide a much-needed alternative nearby, especially as future U.S. access to Clark is uncertain because of ambitious plans to develop Clark International Airport into an alternative civilian hub for Manila. U.S. combat aircraft rotating through Basa would also be well-placed to respond quickly to any incidents threatening Filipino assets at Scarborough Shoal.
Puerto Princesa, meanwhile, is the home of AFP Western Command and its air component, the Tactical Operations Wing West, whose area of responsibility includes the Spratly Islands. Building up the capacity of this air wing with U.S. assistance is critical if the Philippines hopes to monitor, patrol, and eventually establish a minimum credible defense posture within its exclusive economic zone and disputed land features in the South China Sea. Finally, in the short and medium term, having U.S. combat aircraft rotate through Antonio Bautista would allow rapid response to, and create a deterrent against, attacks on Filipino ships or soldiers in the Spratlys.
Delays, Downgrades, and Diminished Hopes
More than two years later, plans for all five military bases face considerable hurdles, and it is unclear whether two will see any EDCA activity at all. During a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Assistant Secretary of Defense Randy Schriver insisted that the delays were merely bureaucratic, but the problems are much deeper than that and will require serious political effort on both sides to correct.
EDCA’s future became uncertain almost as soon as President Rodrigo Duterte entered office in July 2016. Duterte is famously anti-American and has repeatedly said that the United States cannot be trusted to fulfill its treaty commitments to the Philippines. As evidence, he has cited Washington’s refusal to confirm that the Mutual Defense Treaty applies to the South China Sea—which President Barack Obama did for the U.S.-Japan Mutual Security Treaty and the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Most Filipinos remain supportive of the alliance, but America’s failure to confirm that it will step up in the only region where the Philippines is likely to face an external threat raises doubts. And it provides ammunition for Duterte and his allies to chip away at the security relationship, including EDCA.
Throughout his first six months in office, Duterte repeatedly threatened to scrap the agreement, while Lorenzana and the military brass urged its continuation. Eventually, the military’s arguments carried the day, likely bolstered by the important security assistance the United States provided during the May to October 2017 siege of Marawi city. In November, Duterte reaffirmed Manila’s commitment to the deal in a joint statement with President Donald Trump. But in the first year and a half of the Duterte administration, plans for the agreed locations were delayed and, in important ways, downgraded.
In January 2017, Lorenzana said that the United States would prioritize work at Basa, followed by Antonio Bautista and Lumbia Air Bases, with construction at all three expected to start later that year. The first two made perfect sense given EDCA’s original stated goals, which focused on modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, joint training, maritime security and domain awareness, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Lumbia, the only EDCA site in restive Mindanao, could also boost counterterror cooperation –increasingly relevant after the Marawi siege and one of Manila’s primary objectives, according to Lorenzana – through the agreement. The secretary confirmed that the United States would undertake runway improvements, construct housing for troops, and build storage facilities for equipment, all of which would eventually be transferred to the Philippine military.
But a few days later, Duterte decried rumors that the United States was “unloading arms” at those three bases and insisted he would not allow it. The Philippine defense establishment moved quickly to reassure the president no weaponry was being unloaded, and highlighting EDCA’s focus on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief while downplaying other aspects of the agreement. Military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla insisted that storage facilities built by the United States would be used to preposition disaster relief supplies like generators, rubber boats, tents and water purifiers. Lorenzana followed this by assuring the president, “There will be no stockpiling of weapons or anything that could be used for war games,” and said Duterte had made that a precondition for continuing with the agreement. The only indication that EDCA sites would still be allowed to contain more than humanitarian assistance and disaster relief warehouses was Padilla’s concession that the United States would be permitted to construct fuel storage facilities that U.S. planes would need during disaster relief operations.
In March 2017, the Philippines suddenly called off plans for EDCA construction at Antonio Bautista. No reason was given, but the decision fit with the Duterte government’s broader effort to deprioritize its maritime disputes with China and reject U.S. security assistance focused on the South China Sea. Lorenzana said at the time that construction would still begin at Basa and Lumbia Air Bases later in 2017.That timeline again proved unrealistic, though planning and survey work for facilities at Basa and Lumbia, along with Fort Magsaysay, slowly moved forward.
Adm. Phil Davidson, nominee to head U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), provided further details on the agreement’s implementation in written responses to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. The admiral said PACOM would be pursuing construction projects at Basa, Lumbia, and Magsaysay in FY18 and FY19. These include the humanitarian assistance and disaster relief warehouse as well as a Command and Control Fusion Center at Basa. Construction at Lumbia and Magsaysay will likely follow the same footprint, focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief storage. Fuel storage facilities should also be expected at the two air bases, as Padilla said last year. But there is no indication so far that barracks, hangars, storage for other defense equipment and materiel, or any of the other infrastructure to support a robust U.S. rotational presence will be allowed at the three locations.
The situations at Antonio Bautista and Mactan Air Bases are even more worrying. Under the Duterte administration, it appears that plans to expand Philippine armed forces facilities and build EDCA locations at those sites have been deprioritized in favor of more ambitious upgrades to the adjoining civilian airports (which share runways with the military bases) under the government’s push to boost tourism. It is unclear whether EDCA plans at either site will, or can, be reworked to accommodate these civilian initiatives, or whether the Duterte government will be open to such plans. But even if those sites are still being considered, the delays at the other three locations suggest they are unlikely to see construction anytime soon.
Dangers of Delay
Changes to the regional security environment in the four years since EDCA was signed have made Article 1 of the agreement more prescient than negotiators intended. Without robust implementation, both sides will find it increasingly difficult to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack,” at least within the South China Sea. China has constructed three large air and naval bases in the contested Spratly Islands, which are now primed for deployments of combat aircraft and have reportedly been equipped with surface-to-air and anti-ship cruise missiles. Every ship or plane near the Spratly Islands is now operating inside Chinese missile range, and will soon be within the combat radius of Chinese fighter jets.
Should there be any violent incident, unless there happens to be a U.S. carrier sailing through the South China Sea, the United States has no combat aircraft nearer than Okinawa and Guam—at distances of about 1,200 and 1,700 nautical miles. Rotational deployments under EDCA could resolve that dilemma. But without fully implementing the defense cooperation agreement, the United States will be incapable of rapidly responding to threats against Filipino troops and vessels in the South China Sea. This could have the perverse effect of making a violent incident between China and the Philippines more likely. The threat of a U.S. response under the Mutual Defense Treaty has been the strongest deterrent against a Chinese use of force. The treaty has allowed Manila to push back against certain Chinese actions, such as the 2014 blockade of the Sierra Madre, because Philippine leaders could be reasonably confident that Beijing would not employ direct military force.
The immediate fault lies with the Duterte administration, but American policymakers have had a role to play as well. By failing to publicly affirm that an attack on Philippine troops or vessels in the South China Sea would fall within the scope of the Mutual Defense Treaty (as the text of the treaty indicates it should), the United States has repeatedly called into question its willingness to live up to its commitment to an ally. Proponents of that ambiguity privately argue that keeping the treaty’s scope vague avoids provoking Beijing and could be quickly remedied with high-level public statements in case of a crisis. But in the meantime, it breeds concerns about U.S. reliability, makes it difficult for defenders of the alliance in Manila to make their case, and reduces the likelihood that EDCA will be implemented as originally envisioned. And without EDCA, the credibility of the U.S. treaty commitment to the Philippines, along with broader U.S. goals in the South China Sea, will be undermined by simple distance. China will be present; the United States will not.
Gregory B. Poling is director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and a fellow with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He oversees research on U.S. foreign policy in the Asia Pacific, with a particular focus on the South China Sea disputes, democratization in Southeast Asia, and Asian multilateralism.
Conor Cronin is a research associate with the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative and was previously a research associate with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He conducts research on the maritime disputes of the Asia Pacific and U.S. foreign policy in Southeast Asia.