PH, US top brass eye more Edca sites
Top Philippine and US military officials are considering adding more sites that will expand American military presence in the country amid Washington’s efforts to deter China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea and toward Taiwan.
Manila and Washington this year added four additional sites—three close to Taiwan and one near a Chinese artificial island in the West Philippine Sea—that almost doubled American military presence from the five that were chosen after the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) was signed in 2014.
US Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino, who is in the country for the annual Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board meeting held on Thursday, said he and Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. discussed increasing the number of Philippine military bases where US troops and equipment could be deployed under Edca.
“General Brawner and I made recommendations to our senior leaders for the consideration of additional sites, but there’s still work to do there,” he said during a press conference after they wrapped up the high-level military meeting at Camp Aguinaldo.
Joint survey eyed
Edca allows the US military to build facilities and preposition supplies, equipment and materiel inside strategically located Philippine military bases. Beijing believes that the additional sites are aimed at deterring China, which sees Taiwan as part of its territory.
The first five Edca locations were Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.
The sites added this year included three in the northern Philippines—Camilo Osias Naval Base and Lal-lo Airport both in Cagayan, and Camp Melchor dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela. The fourth is on Balabac Island in the West Philippine Sea, close to the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, which the Chinese seized in 1995 and turned into one of its biggest artificial islands within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
Sources knowledgeable about the discussions, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters on the matter, said there were no new sites recommended so far.
Both sides have yet to look at the options, likely airports and seaports with military and coast guard presence. A joint survey with the United States will be conducted before the recommended sites are selected, the sources said.
Brawner said other countries should not worry about the selection of Edca sites as they were primarily intended for humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
“All of these joint operations, even the selection of our Edca sites, have nothing to do with the other countries in the Indo-Pacific region, meaning the threats that could come out from these countries,” he said.
Aquilino said they added 63 new projects at the nine Edca sites to the 32 that had been approved.
The United States has so far allocated more than $100 million for Edca projects “to build capability for the AFP to use every day and for the US to fall in on when invited,” he said.
The Filipinos and the Americans are in talks to build a fuel storage facility and a command fusion center at Lal-lo Airport and to upgrade an air strip and the construction of a pier at the Naval Base Camilo Osias in Cagayan province in the northeastern tip of mainland Luzon close to Taiwan.
Brawner, Aquilino and other top military officials and diplomats of both countries toured three Edca sites on Wednesday.
“We’re not just looking at how we can operate together more efficiently but also we’re looking at the future operations that we’re going to conduct,” Brawner said during their visit.
“All of these factors should come in as we decide on which projects we’re really going to pursue,” he added.
Aquilino said the “prioritization” of projects would be discussed by both sides.
“It is ultimately approved by the Philippine government and it is to develop in a way that’s most effective for the Philippines and then supported by the US,” he said.
The officials also inspected Basa Air Base where a 2,800-meter runway worth $24 million is in the final stages of construction after it started in March.
The air base, which could support American activities in the region, has received $66.57 million for various projects, the biggest allocation for a single site from the United States so far.
It is relatively close to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a traditional fishing ground in the West Philippine Sea. The Chinese seized control of the shoal from Filipinos in 2012.
“We are very pleased with the progress of these projects, and we are highly optimistic that next year, more of these projects will be operational, allowing us to engage in joint exercises and operations immediately,” Brawner said.
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