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Gentle push for EDCA as US war games begin

ANNUAL WAR GAMES: Officials link arms during the opening ceremony of the 2015 Balikatan Exercises between the Philippines and US at the Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Monday, April 20. (L-R) VADM Alexander S Lopez APF, PH Exercise Director, BK15; Sec. Voltaire T. Gazmin, Department of National Defense; Usec Evan P. Garcia, Department of Foreign Affairs; Hon. Philip S. Goldberg,US Ambassador to the Philippines; Gen. Gregorio Pio P. Catapang, Chief of Staff, AFP; and BGEN Christopher J. Mahoney USMC, US Exercise Deputy Director. Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

ANNUAL WAR GAMES: Officials link arms during the opening ceremony of the 2015 Balikatan Exercises between the Philippines and US at the Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City on Monday, April 20. (L-R) VADM Alexander S Lopez APF, PH Exercise Director, BK15; Sec. Voltaire T. Gazmin, Department of National Defense; Usec Evan P. Garcia, Department of Foreign Affairs; Hon. Philip S. Goldberg,US Ambassador to the Philippines; Gen. Gregorio Pio P. Catapang, Chief of Staff, AFP; and BGEN Christopher J. Mahoney USMC, US Exercise Deputy Director.

Photo by Ben Nabong/Rappler

MANILA, Philippines – War games between the Philippines and the United States started on Monday, April 20, with a gentle nudge to the Philippine Supreme Court (SC) to rule favorably and immediately on the constituationality of the yet-to-be implemented Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the two countries.

Both Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Acting Foreign Affairs Secretary Evan Garcia during the opening ceremonies of Balikatan 2015 highlighted how EDCA will improve the Philippine military's capability to respond to threats.

"We shall undertake this exercise as we work towards operationalizing, if permitted by our Supreme Court, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which would enable us to conduct combined exercises more efficiently and effectively," Gazmin said.

Garcia said EDCA will, among other benefits, boost Philippine capabilities in maritime security at a time it is fighting China's aggressiveness in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

"We see EDCA as an opportunity to provide new momentum to our partnership, a partnership that has been a cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," Garcia said.

US Defense Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific David Shear also pressed for EDCA during his visit to Manila in January. (READ: US presses need for EDCA)

The biggest war games in Balikatan history started one week shy of the first anniversary of the signing of EDCA on April 28, 2014. It involves nearly 7,000 Americans and a record number of ships and aircraft participating in various field training and civil military operations.

EDCA is meant to expand US presence in the Philippines by allowing them to build facilities inside Philippine military bases and to preposition defense assets. It's an agreement that is expected to facilitate more funding from the US.

Its critics call it de facto basing, which the Philippine constitution only allows with the expressed consent of the Senate through a treaty. The government lawyer argued that the difference is the Americans will only be allowed to build inside Philippine military bases and they will be under the control of Filipinos.

EDCA has been compared to the operations of US Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JSOTF-P) in several Mindanao provinces. (READ: What is EDCA? Look at Zambo's joint PH-US relations)

The difference is JSOTF-P was focused on anti-terrorism campaign while EDCA was negotiated in the middle of Chinese threat in the West Philippine Sea.

Access to the facilities builty by the US is a contentious issue in EDCA as it was in JSOTF-P, where Filipino officers complain about US officers limiting their access to areas that US troops are using.

During the oral arguments, the magistrates did not limit the discussion on just the legal issues. They recognized the threat from China and asked EDCA supporters and critics to explain how they think the Philippines should defend itself and if they think the US will actually help if the Philippines is threated. (READ: Justices to EDCA critics: How to defend West PH Sea? and SolGen: No guarantee that US will aid PH in sea dispute

EDCA was negotiated as the Philippines sought for US assistance in the growing tension in the West Philippine Sea. US also joined the Philippines in strongly criticizing China's aggressive reclamation in the West Philippine Sea, concerned that it will affect freedom of navigation in the area.

The Philippine request for US assistance coincides with the American strategy to rebalance in the Pacific.  Rappler.com