MANILA, Philippines – The former chief of the US Pacific Command said the implementation of a Philippine-US military deal will boost Manila’s maritime security as China continues its island-building spree in the South China Sea.
Retired Admiral Samuel Locklear said the deal known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), coupled with the $79 million in military funding from the US this year, will focus on boosting Philippine maritime domain awareness.
The agreement has been pending before the Philippine Supreme Court for over a year due to questions on its constitutionality. The Court is set to tackle EDCA on December 16, likely issuing a ruling.
“Should the people of the Philippines and your court decide to go forward with the EDCA, what it does is provide a strengthening of the alliance for the 21st century,” Locklear said in an interview with Rappler in Manila.
“You’re a country of over 7,000 islands, a huge archipelago and vast potential EEZs (exclusive economic zones) to have to police and manage. The Filipino Navy and coast guard have a way to go to realize the type of capacity they need to be able to defend such a large area so I think that’s primarily where we’d be,” he added.
Signed in April 2014, the deal gives US troops, ships and planes access to bases of the Philippine military, one of Asia’s weakest. It allows the US to build facilities and preposition equipment in these bases to support the deployment. The infrastructure will become Philippine property.
As head of America’s largest and oldest combatant command from 2012 to May 2015, Locklear worked with Philippine military officials in preparing for EDCA, and drawing up the list of 8 bases providing the US rotational access.
Critics questioned EDCA before the Supreme Court, arguing that it is a treaty that requires the approval of the Philippine Senate. Philippine officials said it is a mere executive agreement that builds on a 1951 treaty with the US. (READ: SolGen to SC: EDCA needed to defend West Philippine Sea)
If the high court upholds the deal, Locklear said the US will begin working on improving infrastructure in Philippine bases for land and maritime forces.
“We’ll be looking at things that sustain forces like gas and oil that go into airplanes. We’ll be looking at the quality of runways in different places, the depths of piers and access for ships of different sizes, and different places around the Philippines, access to places where you might choose to put a submarine,” said Locklear.
The former top Navy commander said the objective was to secure equipment for various functions.
“The first thing you would see is the infrastructure you already have improved to be able to preposition equipment for multiple uses across multiple contingencies, which means it might be equally useful in a hurricane response situation as it would be to a land contingency somewhere in the region. Humanitarian disaster relief is where we’ll probably use it the most.”
The EDCA is part of the Obama administration’s strategic rebalance to Asia after a decade of wars in the Middle East.
Locklear is in Manila with experts of the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to discuss the Asia rebalance, and Philippine-US relations. (READ: Ex-US commander: PH ‘leader on rule of law’)
‘Thank you but it’s ours’
The Supreme Court ruling on EDCA comes as China builds artificial islands in disputed features in the South China Sea, defying calls from Manila and Washington to stop construction activities.
Testifying before US lawmakers in April, Locklear said China’s “fairly massive” reclamation work could allow it to deploy long-range detection radars, base warships and warplanes, and enforce an air defense identification zone. “If this activity continues at pace, it would give them de facto control.”
Even if the EDCA is upheld, CSIS Senior Adviser Christopher Johnson said China is unlikely to change its actions in the South China Sea.
“What we’re likely to see from them is more argumentation about how US action, things like EDCA is, shall we say, encouraging the Filipinos to perhaps be more adventuresome than they otherwise would be on their own. I think we can expect a pretty typical reaction,” said Johnson, a former senior China analyst for the CIA.
‘China will have to decide if it wants to have half a relationship which focuses mostly on economics while the rest of the relationship is rather strained.’
While the US is also working on improving its ties with China, Beijing’s aggression in the strategic waterway has become a sticking point. Johnson cited the September summit between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“This is probably the area where there was the least accommodation or the least agreement between the two sides, the South China Sea specifically. The US obviously presents its concerns, talking about freedom of navigation, the rule of law, and the Chinese effectively saying, ‘Thank you, but it’s ours.’”
China’s island-building worries other Southeast Asian nations as Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei also claim parts of the South China Sea, where $5 trillion in trade passes every year. The Philippines calls the parts it claims the West Philippine Sea.
When Obama visited Manila in November, he announced $250 million in military assistance over two years to develop the maritime capabilities of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. The Philippines is the largest recipient.
CSIS Southeast Asia Deputy Director Murray Hiebert told Rappler that China must weigh its interests in the South China Sea against its rise as an economic superpower.
“It’s up to China to decide how it’s gonna respond. Its neighbors very much appreciate China’s economic rise, how they benefit economically, China’s building of infrastructure, selling commodities, etc. But on security issues like the South China Sea, there’s a lot of anxiety. So China will have to decide if it wants to have half a relationship which focuses mostly on economics while the rest of the relationship is rather strained.”
‘More visible’ US patrols
As China continues building airstrips and military installations in disputed waters, the US plans to pursue freedom of navigation patrols that began in October.
Back then, a guided-missile destroyer sailed within the 12-nautical-mile territorial limit China claims around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands.
Locklear explained that China’s island-building prompted the freedom of navigation patrol, called FONOP in military circles.
“We do these all over. We’ve operated freely forever in the South China Sea. The reason this FONOP around the Chinese structures, I think, became so visible is because these structures didn’t exist 36 months ago. They were below the water most of the time. [It was] the rapid build-up of the islands, the pumping of the sand, the building of runways.”
The former commander said it is important for the US to challenge China’s claims to waters near artificial islands.
“Because if you don’t disagree with it over time, them being there becomes like common law, it becomes commonly accepted. To continue the assertion of the Chinese that somehow they, through the 9-dash line, own all this prompted us to be more visible to the Chinese than what we already had been doing.” – Rappler.com