US, PH reach new defense deal

Posted at 04/27/14 5:16 PM

MANILA -- (UPDATE 5) The Philippines said it would sign an agreement on Monday with the United States to allow greater US military presence on its territory, giving it a security boost amid a bitter territorial dispute with China.

The signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation (EDC) between the two allies has been scheduled on Monday morning, ahead of the arrival of US President Barack Obama.

Prime Berunia, information officer of the Department of National Defense, said the agreement will be signed by Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador Philip Goldberg at 10 a.m. at the AFP Officers Club in Camp Aguinaldo.

The EDC agreement will run for 10 years, shorter than what the United States was originally asking for, two senior government officials said on Sunday, asking for anonymity due to lack of authority to speak on details of the pact.

But the deal is renewable depending on the needs of the two oldest allies in the Asia-Pacific region, one of the sources said.

According to an ABS-CBN News source, the EDC is anchored on Article 2 of the Mutual Defense Treaty that states: “In order more effectively to achieve the objective of this Treaty, the Parties separately and jointly by self-help and mutual aid will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

Government officials earlier said there is no need to send the EDC to the Senate for approval since it is just a part of the treaty.

The official said the opening of selected military bases to US troops would allow the prepositioning of supplies such as in cases of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

Whatever the US troops will be building in Armed Forces territories will be owned by the Philippines once they move out, the official added.

Local laws

Philippine laws will be highlighted in the EDC since “it’s within our territory,” the official said, noting that the Philippine panel had submitted a counter-draft that will allow the Armed Forces head to inspect the facilities being used by the US troops.

The counter-draft gave preference to local businesses in providing military supplies and procurement requirements.

Pundits said the signing of the EDC will greatly assist the Philippines as it tries to fend off increased aggression from China over the West Philippine Sea. The two nations are already bound by a pact to come to each other's aid if attacked and engage in regular war games together.

Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, said the deal was a "skeletal and muscular" framework that would allow the two sides to discuss rotations of US troops, naval visits and training exercises.

He said the deal was "the most significant agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades."

US officials said the exact composition of US forces to be rotated through the Philippines remained to be worked out.

"The scope, the duration and the location of our rotational presence in the Philippines is something that we are going to be working out with them in the coming weeks and years," said Medeiros.

US pivot

The agreement is a significant step in the United States' "pivot" to Asia as it disentangles itself from costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also comes as China has strengthened its maritime presence in disputed areas in the South China Sea after seizing control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

The agreement allows the US to rotate ships, aircraft and troops for a period longer than the current maximum of two weeks during joint military exercises by the two nations, a senior military source told Reuters.

The United States is expected to gradually deploy combat ships, a squadron of F18s or F16s and maritime surveillance aircraft, the same source said.

Last year, there were 149 US navy ship visits to the Philippines, up from 68 in the previous year, and that number is likely to rise further under the new pact.

"We are considering bases in Northern Luzon like Clark and Subic, and Fort Magsaysay, to accommodate the U.S. forces. We will set aside space in those bases for their troops," the military source said.

Clark and Subic were the two military bases maintained by the United States northwest of Manila until 1991, when the Philippine Senate voted to evict American troops. Eight years later, the Senate approved an agreement providing for temporary visits by U.S. forces, allowing the staging of joint military exercises.

The new military accord also allows the storage of U.S. humanitarian equipment and supplies for disaster response such as generators, water purifiers, fork lifts, tents and shelter materials, with some of these equipment already in the country and utilized after super Typhoon Yolanda (international name: Haiyan) devastated parts of the Visayas in November, the military source also said.

Pio Lorenzo Batino, undersecretary of Defense and chairperson of the Philippine panel negotiating with the United States, earlier said the agreement complied with the Philippine Constitution, which meant U.S. forces will have no permanent presence and will not set up military bases.

But Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago had said she will scrutinize the pact, adding any agreement involving posting of troops and war equipment in another sovereign state becomes a treaty requiring Senate ratification, unless it was linked to an earlier treaty.

Support vs China

The Philippines had been pushing for the agreement to help bolster its military as it engages in an increasingly tense row with China over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.

But Medeiros dismissed the notion that Washington saw the agreement through a prism of containing China's rising military might.

"We are not doing this because of China. We are doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner. They are interested in stepping up our military-to-military" interaction, he said.

The Philippines hosted two of the largest overseas US military bases until 1992, when the Filipino Senate voted to end their lease amid growing anti-US sentiment.

President Benigno Aquino III has led a warm re-embrace of the United States in recent years, insisting that greater US military support is needed to fend off China's actions.

China claims most of the South China Sea, even waters close to the Philippines and other countries in the region. Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have overlapping claims to the sea.

The Philippines has protested repeatedly at what it says are bullying tactics by China in staking its claims, including by taking control of a shoal far closer to the Filipino land mass than the Chinese.

Chinese ships also last month tried to block vessels bringing supplies to a Philippine military outpost on a tiny reef claimed by China.

The Philippines has angered China by asking a United Nations tribunal to rule on the validity of China's claims to the sea.

China has refused to take part in the case, and said the Philippines' move had "seriously damaged" bilateral ties.

Obama will be arriving in the Philippines for his two-day state visit at around 1:30 p.m. on Monday. He will be coming from Malaysia, where he acknowledged the importance of peace and stability in the face of recent developments over the disputed seas.

Both Obama and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak “underscored the importance of all parties concerned resolving their territorial and maritime disputes through peaceful means, including international arbitration, as warranted, and in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea,” the US embassy in Manila said.

“The two leaders highlighted the importance of all parties concerned avoiding the use of force, intimidation, or coercion, and exercising self-restraint in the conduct of activities,” it added. -- With report from Reuters and Agence France-Presse