Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s decision to expand the coverage of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) is being opposed by some local leaders. They led prayer rallies against the building of new U.S. military facilities in the country.
Under the original EDCA, signed in 2014, the U.S. military can access five locations in the Philippines where it can store equipment, transport supplies, and undertake other logistics for war exercises and disaster response.
Marcos, who became president in 2022, agreed to give the United States access to four new locations as part of his program to modernize the armed forces and improve the country’s defense capabilities. Three of these new locations are in Cagayan and Isabela provinces in northern Luzon, a region close to Taiwan.
Several legislators and local officials said they support the expansion of EDCA, but some of the president’s allies have raised questions about it.
Senator Imee Marcos, the chairperson of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has called for a more self-reliant defense policy to “scale down our dependence on foreign goodwill in the sticky web of geopolitics.” She is not a member of the opposition, but rather the elder sister of the president.
“Are we going to just rely on foreigners to defend us while our armed forces remain neglected, outdated… and completely abject in the face of any external threats?” Senator Marcos asked during a public hearing.
She also questioned the inclusion of the two EDCA sites in Cagayan when there are other provinces that are more vulnerable to extreme weather events. “If disaster and maritime security are the reasons, then why don’t we have a base on the eastern side of the Philippines?” she asked.
She later expressed concern that EDCA sites could be used to attack other countries. “While we want a very strong American military presence in Asia and the Philippines, we should also safeguard our citizenry by making certain that the EDCA camps will never [be] used for staging areas of any attack against Taiwan or any other country,” she said.
President Marcos assured the Senate and the public that his government will not allow the use of EDCA sites for military offensives since they are supposedly only meant “to boost the disaster response of the country.”
But Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba insists that EDCA is “inimical to the interest” of his province. He is worried that Cagayan “might be a magnet that will cause military trouble to all of us, especially nuclear attack” because of the installation of U.S. military facilities in the province.
On April 17, around 7,000 people joined a prayer rally in Cagayan to oppose EDCA. Mamba spoke during the rally and urged his constituents to pray for peace.
“We want Cagayan to be the center of agro-industrial hubs in the international port, not the center of foreign military bases whose clear objective is to enable war between America and China,” he said.
He expressed concern that investors from China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan could be discouraged from doing business in Cagayan if it will be turned into a U.S. military stronghold. He added that the national government did not consult him and other town mayors about the implementation of EDCA in the province.
A few weeks earlier, Mamba met a Chinese diplomat and shared a similar sentiment. “We do not want any quarrel with any of our neighbors. We are having a hard enough time helping our people to have a better quality of life. We cannot be distracted with conflict we are not part of.”
Mamba is not the first local official to reject a proposal to build a foreign military facility in his locality. Ten years ago in Davao, then-Mayor Rodrigo Duterte also took a similar stance before becoming president.
At the House of Representatives, Leftist legislators criticized the use of public funds for the hosting of U.S. troops as they bemoaned the undermining of the nation’s sovereignty. The country’s 1987 Constitution prohibits the building of foreign military bases and the use of nuclear weapons.
Questions about the operational control of EDCA sites will continue to stir debates after Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo confirmed that negotiations are still ongoing.
“We have to identify the terms and references, how these activities will be undertaken,” he said in a media briefing. “So I don’t think we’re really at any stage yet to answer how they might be used. They’re still open to discussion.”
The Marcos government should carefully explain the extent of EDCA and convince the public that it favors the country’s long-term interest. The anti-dictatorship movement that ousted the president’s father in 1986 sustained the clamor for the rejection of the U.S. bases treaty in 1991. There could be a revival of the nationalist campaign against foreign military bases as Marcos pivots closer to the United States through the expanded EDCA.