EDCA: What PH bases may be offered to US and why
AFP Chief of Staff shares top picks for bases to be accessed under EDCA
MASINLOC, Zambales (UPDATE) - The town of Masinloc in Zambales is home to fishermen who have ventured out to Scarborough Shoal for generations. But these days, many fishermen are more likely to be found on the streets instead of their boats. Any fishing is done in nearby waters where the catch is sparse.
"Medyo mahirap ang buhay. Dahil sa kawalan ng trabaho, sa ngayon standby-standby na lang kami," says Francis Miranda, one of the local fishermen. He was one of several people forced to leave the shoal last April by armed men on rubber boats.
His neighbor, Miguel Vitana, was hit by a water cannon fired by the Chinese Navy last January. He would rather stay away from the shoal, but he knows it won’t be long before he returns.
"Kasi, nagpapaaral ka, pero kung dito ka lang sa malapit hindi mo kakayanin yung ganyang gastusin, hindi tulad sa malayo na maganda ang kikitain," he explains.
Joint training exercises between the Philippines and United States in recent years have not curbed China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
Yet AFP Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista remains hopeful regular U.S. presence in the nearby town of San Antonio will make a difference.
"We have a Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States. We have to demonstrate that the treaty works, that we can implement it when necessary. It serves as a deterrent for any would-be aggressor."
The Naval Education & Training Command (NETC) in San Antonio, Zambales is one of at least three military facilities Bautista will offer the United States for use under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. Bautista is co-chairman of the Mutual Defense Board (MDB) which will decide which areas may be used by the U.S. for training, refueling, and prepositioning of ships, aircraft and other defense equipment.
U.S. Pacific Command Admiral Samuel Locklear is also co-chairman of the MDB.
Also known as Naval Station San Miguel, the NETC is only 220 kilometers from Scarborough shoal, a disputed area China took control of after a standoff with Philippine authorities in 2012. The NETC sits on 1,137 hectares of land, but only a fraction has been developed for academics and training, leaving some 960 hectares open for a wide range of possibilities. The NETC has been hosting Balikatan exercises between Philippine and US soldiers for many years now.
Bautista will also offer the United States use of a military base in Oyster Bay, Palawan; and Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija.
OYSTER BAY, PALAWAN
Even closer to another disputed area is an underdeveloped Naval facility in Oyster Bay, Palawan. It is 160 kilometers from the Spratly Islands, an area being claimed by the Philippines, China and Vietnam.
Government today said China is building what could be an airstrip in Johnson South Reef.
“Oyster Bay is important because we have access to disputed areas. It is easier for us to support our patrols in the West Philippine Sea and it allows us to address the issues and threats that we face in the West Philippine Sea,” Bautista says.
But there are other reasons Bautista will push for U.S. troops to use a portion of Oyster Bay. “We have a small pier there right now. We need to improve the pier further not only to accommodate training activities, but our own ships, navy vessels. We also need to improve barracks and support facilities like water and power to make it more habitable. Perhaps with EDCA, the improvement of Oyster Bay will be hastened.”
FORT MAGSAYSAY, NUEVA ECIJA
Fort Magsaysay is the country’s largest military reservation at 26,000 hectares. It claims to have the best training facilities in the country and is host to Balikatan exercises every year, particularly live fire mortar exercises and jungle warfare.
Since 2012 it has undergone a facelift in an effort to reach out to the community. The tree-lined North entrance has shops, a café and a bowling alley. The camp has a golf course, camping sites, and function rooms. TV shows have been shot in the scenic premises.
But much can still be done to develop the base. Foremost is the expansion of the air strip. “They can help us do that,” says Bautista. “They have big aircraft but the airstrip in Fort Magsaysay may not be able to accommodate big aircraft or support facilities, so they may help us develop the airstrip. It benefits both of us and allows us to have more training activities.”
More barracks are needed too. Thousands of trainees from all over the country travel to Fort Magsaysay every year, but there are not enough decent barracks to accommodate them. Some have had to spend days at a condemned building with leaks, broken windows, power fluctuations, and low water pressure. It is hoped the Americans will build barracks that can later be used by Philippine soldiers.
But to Northern Luzon Commander Lt. General Gregorio Catapang, U.S. presence in Fort Magsaysay also means saving more lives during times of disaster. “We had a series of typhoons in 2005- three typhoons,” he recalls. “Central Luzon was so devastated. Tiempo naman na there was a Balikatan exercise and all the assets were redeployed for disaster response. If they are there, as we experienced during the typhoon, we can easily request use of their aircraft for disaster response.”
DISPARITY BETWEEN PH-US INTERESTS?
A military expert however expects a disparity between locations the AFP will offer for use, and locations the United States will ask for.
“I don’t think there will be total symmetry,” says retired Navy Commodore Rex Robles. “Kung ako ang U.S., ang gusto ko ay Mindanao kasi malayo sya sa intercontinental missiles of China or Russia. Kailangan hindi kaya ng mga bombers. Kailangan ng refueling. In other words, dapat mahirap puntahan at mahirap tamaan.”
Robles says the U.S.could take an interest in Nonoc Island in Surigao because of its pier, fuel depot, and airstrip. General Santos City also has a good airstrip while Saranggani Bay would be an ideal location for a pier.
But none of these areas are currently in the possession of the AFP.
The Mutual Defense Board has yet to meet to finalize locations which may be accessed by the U.S.
Skeptics are anxious to see which country's interests will prevail.