U.S. and Philippine officials yesterday broke ground on a runway rehabilitation project at Basa Air Base in the capital Manila, part of a U.S.-funded renewal of military facilities earmarked for a rotational U.S. troop presence under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The ceremony was overseen by Philippines defense chief Carlito Galvez Jr. and U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who in a speech hailed the groundbreaking as “a physical manifestation” of EDCA, which he described as a “key pillar of the U.S.-Philippine alliance.”
“The runway rehabilitation, which is expected to be completed in September 2023, would make Basa Air Base ideal for the efficient conduct of joint task force exercises and as a natural hub for HADR operations, especially that we are a disaster-prone country,” Galzez added later during a joint news conference with Kendall. (HADR refers to humanitarian assistance and disaster response.)
Signed in 2014, EDCA allows the U.S. military to rotate troops through select Philippine military facilities, and to use facilities such as runways, fuel storage, and military housing. The runway rehabilitation is part of $82 million the United States last year allocated for infrastructure investments at the five military bases that have so far been included under EDCA.
The rehabilitation of the 2,800-meter runway will cost $25 million, excluding other “improvements” and the construction of a wing operations center, Galvez said. According to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Washington has also allocated $11.4 million for EDCA works at Fort Magsaysay, $1.8 million for Antonio Bautista; $2.7 million for the Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base, and $3.7 million for the Lumbia Air Base.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last month approved the expansion of EDCA to four additional bases, the surest sign of a renaissance in U.S.-Philippine relations following the stagnation of the Rodrigo Duterte years. During their joint press conference, Kendall said that the U.S. and Philippines will announce these four new EDCA sites “as soon as they can.”
It is unclear which bases have been selected, but Philippine officials have previously stated that the Biden administration had asked for access to bases in Isabela, Zambales, and Cagayan, all on the northern island of Luzon, in close proximity to Taiwan. The fourth base is reported to be on Palawan island in the South China Sea, which lies near the Spratly Islands, where China and the Philippines have dueling maritime and territorial claims.
The rumored concentration of the bases on Luzon has caused some consternation in the Philippines, with some officials, including Senator Imee Marcos, the sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., expressing fears that the Philippines could become embroiled in a U.S.-China conflict over Taiwan. In particular, Manuel Mamba, the governor or Cagayan province, has publicly opposed hosting any EDCA sites for fear of jeopardizing Chinese investment or becoming a target in a potential future conflict over Taiwan.
During yesterday’s press conference, Galvez said that the leaders of governments in regions hosting the potential EDCA sites have now backed the government’s decision to allow the U.S. access, suggesting that these leaders will now keep any misgivings to themselves. Kendall added that the defense agreements between the two countries were “not focused on any particular issue.” He said, “We are at an inflection point in history and our cooperation will help ensure we stay on the path to peace and stability.”
While his first statement is technically true – the EDCA expansion will allow U.S. forces to take part in humanitarian and relief missions in the cyclone-prone archipelago – it is also hard to imagine that such a breakneck expansion of EDCA would be taking place were it not for the challenge posed to U.S. hegemony by China, to which Kendall’s reference to a historical “inflection point” no doubt refers.
As I’ve noted previously, Manila and Washington for now remain mostly aligned in their pursuit of closer security relations. However, the recent murmurs of discontent over the Philippines’ aligning too closely with the U.S. on the question of China suggests that for all of the cultural and strategic affinities between the two nations, there are limits to how far this relationship is likely to go.