Recent progress in U.S.-Philippine relations will take the capability of the alliance to a “new level” not seen in decades, the United States’ defense chief told an audience in New York Friday before departing for a trip which includes stops to the Philippines and India.
The Philippines, long belittled as one of Asia’s weakest militaries and Washington’s laggard regional alliance, has become a critical part of the United States’ rebalance to the region with ratification of a new defense pact known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in January as well as its involvement in a Pentagon capacity-building program known as the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative (MSI), which is just getting underway (See: “Why the Philippines is Critical to the US Rebalance to Asia”).
“EDCA and MSI will take the U.S.-Philippines alliance capability to a new level, one not seen in decades,” U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in a speech on Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a New York-based think tank.
EDCA, which was inked in April 2014, but only upheld by the Philippine Supreme Court this January, gives U.S. troops and equipment wide access to Philippine military bases on a rotational basis. Carter said that the announcement of the initial slate of five locations under the agreement would allow U.S. forces to conduct regular rotational training, exercises and activities and better support the modernization of the Philippine military as well as mutual defense (See: “A Big Deal? US, Philippines Agree First ‘Bases’ Under New Defense Pact”).
“We recently announced an initial slate of five EDCA Agreed Locations for the alliance activities, locations arrayed throughout the archipelago that will offer the opportunity for increasingly complex bilateral engagements,” Carter said.
As part of his trip to the Philippines, Carter is expected to visit two of the five locations next week – Fort Magsaysay and Antonio Bautista Air Base. EDCA, Carter said, would enable the allies to augment pre-positioned disaster relief supplies at Fort Magsaysay that had supported the response to Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest typhoon ever recorded in Philippine history that killed over 6,300 people. New stocks would also be added to Bautista Air Base to enhance allied ability to respond to future disasters.
The Diplomat understands from officials that while initial efforts under EDCA will focus on areas like humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, over the longer term the agreement will allow the United States to station more troops, ships, and planes more frequently, thereby enhancing Washington’s rotational presence in the region more generally amid a range of threats including China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Regarding MSI, a $425-million-dollar, five-year maritime security capacity-building initiative for Southeast Asian states near the South China Sea, which Carter first announced last year at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Carter said that most of the funding for the first year of the program would go to the Philippines (See: “America’s New Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia”).
“We have just released the first tranche of this money, nearly 80 percent of which is going to the Philippines,” he said.
The funding, he said, will help modernize the technology and train staff at the Philippine National Coast Watch Center, enhance an information network to enable classified information sharing between U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii and key Philippines maritime command centers, provide an aerostat reconnaissance platform, and outfit Philippine navy patrol vessels with better sensors.
This would be a much-needed boost for Manila, which has struggled to counter Beijing’s assaults against it in the South China Sea, including the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and the continued harassment of Philippine aircraft, vessels, and fishermen (See: “The Truth About Philippine Military Modernization and the China Threat”). The Philippines also has a pending South China Sea case against China with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague, with a verdict expected in May or June.
“[O]ur having the initiative and the funding that goes with it that makes it possible, particularly for a country like the Philippines… it’s a very positive thing,” Carter told The Diplomat in response to a question on board Boeing 737-700 flight from New York back to Washington following his CFR speech.
Carter will also become the first U.S. defense secretary to observe the Balikatan exercises, the premier bilateral U.S.-Philippine military exercise that has grown to involve Australia as well as a number of additional observers this year including Japan (See: “US, Philippines Launch Wargames as China Issues Warning”). This year’s exercise, which runs through April 15 and includes over 7,000 personnel from all military services from both countries, features a simulated oil and gas platform recovery raid in the South China Sea and the deployment of two units of the U.S. M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) for the first time.
“Balikatan signals our shared resolve. It enhances our shared capabilities. And it demonstrates, once again, America’s dedication to standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Philippines,” Carter said, referring to the U.S. translation of the term Balikatan in the local Tagalog language.
Carter also reiterated U.S. President Barack Obama’s statement that the U.S. commitment to the Philippines is “ironclad.” Some continue to call on the administration to clarify its commitments under the U.S.-Philippine defense treaty as they might apply to the South China Sea to serve as a deterrent to Beijing.