Philippines Grants Us Five More EDCA Bases

EDCA Bases
Four new EDCA sites have been added to the five existing locations. On this map, red markers refer to new sites, and yellow to existing ones. (Google Earth)

Now that anti-American Rodrigo Duterte is no longer President of the Philippines, the US Government in Washington DC is enjoying a rapprochement with the country diplomatically and militarily. This rekindled relationship under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. manifested itself in the designation on 3 April of four additional Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites.

“In addition to the five existing sites, these new locations will strengthen the interoperability of the US and Philippine armed forces and allow us to respond more seamlessly together to address a range of shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including natural and humanitarian disasters,” the US Department of Defense (DoD) declared.

EDCA is a 2014 arrangement whereby the US can rotate forces and access agreed-upon Philippine military bases. It has the right to build storage facilities and to preposition equipment, but EDCA does not permit permanent basing.

The US and Philippines agreed that they would “rapidly pursue modernisation projects” at the four locations of Camilo Osias Naval Base in Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Isabela; Lal-lo Airport in Cagayan; and Balabac Island in Palawan.

Only the latter site bounds the South China Sea, while the other three are in the northern Philippines, closer to Taiwan. Most importantly, these northern sites will bolster the ability of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to conduct naval and air operations around the Luzon Strait and Benham Rise.

The Luzon Strait separates the Philippines and Taiwan, connecting the South China Sea to the Philippine Sea. Its strategic importance is self-evident, since it forms a gap in the First-Island Chain that contains China. It is one route through which Chinese warships can access the Western Pacific and threaten Taiwan.

As for Benham Rise, 155 miles (250 kilometres) east of Luzon, the Philippines successfully claimed this as part of its continental shelf in 2012. China has conducted unauthorised seabed surveys in this area.

Naturally, Beijing sharply criticised EDCA’s expansion, claiming the US military would use them to intervene in a Taiwan Strait crisis or to attack China. Yet the exact location of the sites is not the big issue – what China objects to is closer security cooperation between these two allies.

Beijing’s purpose has always been to disrupt this alliance. China was able to exert significant sway during the Duterte era, but it is now irritated the Philippine government is neither pro-China nor so acquiescent.

Huang Xilian, China’s Ambassador to the Philippines, warned: “Obviously, the US intends to take advantage of the new EDCA sites to interfere in the situation across the Taiwan Strait to serve its geopolitical goals, and advance its anti-China agenda at the expense of peace and development of the Philippines and the region at large.”

The US had allocated $82 million for infrastructure at five existing EDCA sites, but this will enlarge to $100 million to encompass the new sites. The five incumbent sites are Basa Air Base in Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan; Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu; and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro.

The five EDCA sites incorporate 15 infrastructure projects, but just five have been completed to date. They include a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) warehouse, fuel tank and Command & Control (C2) fusion centre in Palawan.

Rehabilitation of Basa Air Base’s 1.7 mile (2.8km) runway commenced in March, with work to be completed by September. Construction has already begun on a 1.8 mile (3km) runway on Balabac too, which will also receive an HADR warehouse, barracks and other military facilities.

Such projects bolster the ability of both the AFP and US military to conduct bilateral training such as the annual Balikatan exercises, plus they give both sides greater resilience for tasks such as HADR and national self-defence.

To China’s chagrin, the US DoD noted: “…We will continue to consult closely with the Philippines on new opportunities that serve our shared interests.”

The possibility exists of even more EDCA sites being declared. Colonel Medel Aguilar, AFP spokesperson, noted: “If we’re talking about the further expansion of EDCA, this is possible. We’re an archipelagic country and we have so many islands; we have a long shoreline. If we’re to protect our sovereignty and territorial integrity, including the protection of maritime resources that should be enjoyed by our people, we need 360° protection capability for the AFP.”

by Gordon Arthur