The Philippines announced yesterday that the United States had agreed to spend $66.5 million to start building training and warehouse facilities at three of its military bases, under a security pact signed in 2014.
In a statement, the Philippine Department of National Defense said that construction will start next year on projects involving three Philippine bases earmarked under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
“The Department is committed to accelerating the implementation of the EDCA by concluding infrastructure enhancement and repair projects, developing new infrastructure projects at existing EDCA locations, and exploring new locations that will build a more credible mutual defense posture,” the DND’s statement read.
The new projects will involve the construction of training, warehouse, and other facilities at Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, and Lumbia Airport Base Station in Cagayan de Oro.
Manila’s Defense Department said it is also focused on planning joint activities with U.S. forces to develop the Philippines’ individual and joint capacity “to address current security challenges.”
Signed in 2014, EDCA permitted the U.S. to deploy conventional forces in the Philippines for the first time in decades, amid growing mutual concerns about China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. The Philippines later approved five military bases for a rotational U.S. presence, and the U.S. government this week reportedly expressed its interest in five more military facilities.
However, the implementation of the agreement stalled following the election in mid-2016 of Rodrigo Duterte, who initiated a sharp turn against the U.S., and steered his government into friendlier relations with China – despite the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s six years in power were not good for the U.S.-Philippine alliance, which is rooted in the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 but builds on the close relationship established during the half-century of direct U.S. colonial rule over the Philippine islands.
Against a general backdrop of hostility to the U.S. – Duterte refused to visit the country during his time in office – he also took aim at some of the load-bearing structures of the alliance. The most important of these was the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which lays out rules for the deployment of U.S. troops in the Philippines and is vital to the implementation of security cooperation under EDCA.
In early 2020, Duterte announced that he was canceling the VFA, in retaliation for a close ally being refused a visa to visit the United States. But under pressure from his own broadly pro-American defense and security establishment, the Philippine leader held off on putting the final nail in the agreement’s coffin, announcing three successive six-month stays of the cancelation. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin finally managed to secure the cancelation of the termination of the agreement during a visit to Manila last year.
The resumption of security cooperation under EDCA is just the latest sign that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who succeeded Duterte in July, is returning his country’s foreign policy to its historical mean of friendliness toward Washington. As Zachary Abuza of the National War College in Washington, D.C., put it on Twitter yesterday, “Duterte’s damage is slowly being undone.”
The Philippine announcement came ahead of a visit to the country by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who will become the highest-ranking American official to fly out to the Philippine island of Palawan, which lies adjacent to the disputed Spratly Islands, where both the Philippines and China have claims.
Reuters quoted a senior Biden administration official as saying that while in Palawan, Harris is expected to meet with “residents, civil society leaders and representatives of the Philippines Coast Guard.” One U.S. observer noted that she is also likely to visit Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, one of the five Philippine bases earmarked for a rotational U.S. presence under EDCA.
Harris’ trip will demonstrate Washington’s “commitment to stand with our Philippine ally in upholding the rules-based international maritime order in the South China Sea, supporting maritime livelihoods and countering illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing,” Reuters quoted the official as saying.