How far will the US go to defend the Philippines?

MANILA, Philippines – It is signed. And while Manila and Washington insist that it does not pave the way for the return of US bases here, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) means more American troops, more facilities that Americans will construct inside military bases, and more US ships, aircraft and other military assets.

The unpleasant history of US presence in the Philippines and the lack of transparency in the negotiations cloud the agreement that was signed Monday, April 28, by Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg.

But a security official interviewed by Rappler was blunt. "Rightly or wrongly, we need them for the balance of power. The reality is we cannot hack it alone," he said.

The Philippines sought US military assistance in the wake of escalating tension with China over the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea).

The alternative is to resolve the maritime disputes through bilateral talks with China, a track used by the former Arroyo administration but which President Benigno Aquino III deems "unworkable." 

There have been concerns about the "irresoluteness" of the US, too, over questions on how far it is willing to go to help the Philippines against China, the same security official said. But for the Philippines, the security official said the US assistance to the Philippine Navy in the March 29 standoff with the Chinese Coast Guard in the disputed Ayungin Shoal helped soothe doubts.

Still, a categorical position from the US is desired. “We want realistic expectations. Hanggang saan kayo (How far will you go)?,” he said. The official, a retired military officer who still works in government, spoke on condition of anonymity.

Obama: Our goal is not to counter China

In Japan, Obama gave a categorical statement declaring that the disputed islands in the East China Sea are covered by their defense agreements. (READ: Obama in Japan says Senkaku Islands covered by security treaty)

In the Philippines, he evaded the question. Obama highlighted the peaceful resolution of the maritime conflict in the region and reiterated US support for the arbitration case the Philippines filed against China. READ: No categorical commitment from US on China dispute)

"We welcome China's peaceful rise. We have a constructive relationship with China.... Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure that international rules and norms are respected and that includes the area of maritime disputes," said Obama in a joint press conference with President Aquino in Malacañang.

EDCA is not focused on maritime security alliance alone, he explained. "The goal for this agreement is to build Philippine capacity to engage in training, to engage in coordination, not simply to deal with issues of maritime security but also to enhance  our capability so that if there's a natural disaster that takes place, we are able to respond more quickly. If there are additonal threats that may arise, we are able to work in a more cooperative fashion," Obama said.

The military deal means the US will construct facilities, upgrade infrastructure, as well as store and preposition defense and disaster preparedness equipment, supplies, and materiel. (READ: PH primer on military pact with US)

Maritime cooperation

For a country that lacks assets to patrol its long coastline, maritime cooperation is the name of the game.

“It’s all about maritime cooperation where you look at nations that have the same goals, interests and values. One that promotes freedom, democracy, peace and stability," Philippine Navy chief Vice Admiral Jose Luis Alano told Rappler when asked about the agreement with the US.

The Philippines also has a string of defense cooperation agreements with neighboring ASEAN countries and allies such as Japan and Canada. But in the absence of a treaty, these countries cannot have the same set up as the US. (The Philippines argues that the EDCA is based on the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty.)

Maritime cooperation among the different navies of ASEAN works is crucial in keeping the security situation under control.

When fishing vessels are missing and when planes crash into the sea, navies can call each other to seek permission to enter each other's waters or to seek assistance. "Each one of us is just a phone all away," said Alano. 

The navy chiefs hold regular meetings and the Philippines hosted the 7th meeting in September 2013.

"What we are trying to do is to increase the bond that we have. It's very important that communications is established. It's better if you are communication with somebody you know. It's not just establishing communications link but also making personal links within the different organizations particularly the chiefs of navy. These types of arrangements have always been fruitful," said Alano.

Defense budgets

China, which claims almost the entire South China Sea, has its own rules, continously pushing its claims through unilateral actions such as the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). With a defense budget of US$188.5 billion in 2013, based on the estimates of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), it has the military muscle to challenge countries – including Japan and South Korea.

In comparison, the Philippines had a defense budget of US$3.5 billion in 2013. The country harbors no illusions it can match China's military might but it is acquiring a squadron of fighter jets from South Korea, 2 new frigates, and radar systems to attain minimum credible defense posture in the hope that it can deter China from occupying its territories the way it took Mischief Reef in the 1990s. 

The Philippines looks at its maritime cooperation with US as a deterrence to China.

Panatag Shoal located off the coast of Zambales province is now practically occupied by the Chinese Coast Guard following a tense standoff in 2012 when the Philippines attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen poaching its waters. Philippine fishing vessels that attempted to enter the area were fired with water cannons.

China is now eyeing the Ayungin Shoal located off the coast of Palawan. It is demanding the removal of BRP Sierra Madre from the Shoal. Members of the Philippine Marines occupying the grounded ship have the task to keep China in check. The troops before them stayed there for 5 months.

A former navy officer is also concerned that China will go after Sabina Shoal next. It is nearer the oil-rich Recto Reef which sailor-turned-politician Roilo Golez said is the real target.

The next rotation and resupply mission won’t be easy. It will be the test of how far China will go in driving away the Philippines from the shoal, according to the official interviewed by Rappler.

"China will have to stand their ground. They will have to be more aggressive," he said.

China doesn’t want war. But there is always fear of “miscalculation," he added.

Doubts on the US rebalancing remain especially when large chunks of Obama's press conferences were devoted to issues that lured him back to Europe or the Middle East. (READ: Obama: One eye on Asia, another on global turbulence)

But for the Philippines, the change will be clear. EDCA isn't just a 10-year commitment; it could also bring about problems that the negotiations failed to anticipate. For one, some sectors are already saying the agreement has to be ratified by the Senate. – Rappler.com