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‘PH will likely lose its maritime rights’ in Spratlys over EDCA delays – experts

/ 11:45 AM May 18, 2018
Edca project groundbreaking

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (second from left) and US Ambassador Sung Kin lead the groundbreaking of the first major Edca project at Basa Air Base in Pampanga on Tuesday, April 17, 2018. (INQUIRER.net FILE PHOTO/FRANCES MANGOSING)

The long-delayed implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and United States signed in 2014 will make it more difficult for the Philippines to fight for its stakes in the South China Sea, maritime experts said.

The groundbreaking ceremony for the first EDCA project was held only in April at Basa Air Base – two years after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the agreement in January 2016.

“If implementation of the agreement continues at this rate, the national interests of both the Philippines and the United States will suffer,” wrote Gregory Poling and Conor Cronin, experts on maritime disputes from the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, in a commentary.

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The commentary, “The Dangers of Allowing US-Philippine Defense Cooperation to Languish,” was published Wednesday night (Philippine time) at analysis website War on the Rocks.

“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,” they added.

Article I of the EDCA says the agreement is to ensure the two allies would meet under their obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty “to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

“Should there be any violent incident, unless there happens to be a US carrier sailing through the South China Sea, the US has no combat aircraft nearer than Okinawa and Guam—at distances of about 1,200 and 1,700 nautical miles,” the experts noted.

“Rotational deployments under EDCA could resolve that dilemma. But without fully implementing the defense cooperation agreement, the US 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 US 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,” they also said.

Under the EDCA, the US military would have access to and use of five agreed locations in Philippine military bases. It also allows US forces to construct facilities and preposition assets in the said locations.

Last month, US Ambassador to Manila Sung Kim assured that the Philippines has control of the facilities that the US would build.

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The five initial locations chosen for EDCA were Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City, Mactan-Buenito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu and Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija.

Rapid response

The experts said two of the bases most strategic for accomplishing EDCA’s goals are Basa and Antonio Bautista Air Bases.

“US 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,” Poling and Cronin wrote.

“Building up the capacity of this air wing with US 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 US 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,” they added.

The Bautista and Mactan bases are also facing setbacks to start the construction of facilities soon.

“Under the Duterte administration, it appears that plans to expand Philippine armed forces facilities and build EDCA locations at those sites have been de-prioritized 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,” the experts wrote.

China is in the finishing touches of its construction of its military bases in seven of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Reports that surfaced in recent weeks include the Asian superpower’s deployment of communications jamming equipment and missiles in some of its bases near the Philippines.

“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,” the experts said.

Arbitration ruling as leverage card

When President Rodrigo Duterte assumed office in mid-2016, he threatened to scrap the defense cooperation pact, as he has been vocal about his resentment of US foreign policies.

Mr. Duterte has since been shifting the nation’s foreign policy away from the US, and pursued warmer ties with China as well as Russia.

He also put aside the 2016 ruling of The Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated China’s nine-dash-line claims in the South China Sea in exchange of business and economic opportunities from China.

“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,” the experts wrote.

Aside from bringing up the arbitration ruling, Duterte should have threatened China by bringing back US forces to the Philippines, said Richard Heydarian, a specialist in international relations.

“He should have given the Americans more access to bases close to the Spratly chain of islands like the Bautista Air Base in Palawan and other bases close to Scarborough Shoal. He could have brought back the Phiblex and Carat exercises and other joint military exercises in the South China Sea. He could have used the America card to threaten China and gain concessions from China,” he told INQUIRER.net early this week.

“In many ways we have undermined our limited leverage towards China. It’s true that it’s an asymmetrical relationship but we were not totally bereft of our leverage towards China. I think the American card and arbitration award could have been used more tactically by the Duterte administration,” he added.      /kga

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TAGS: China, Diplomacy, EDCA, Maritime, Military, Philippines, sea dispute, Security, South China Sea, Spratlys, United States
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