EDCA and the West Philippine Sea

Jay L. Batongbacal

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

EDCA and the West Philippine Sea
Decision-makers have to abandon the notion that the Philippines should persuade the US to carry the burden of securing its sovereignty to the Kalayaan Islands and jurisdictions in the West Philippine Sea

In oral arguments over the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, Solicitor General Florin Hilbay candidly admitted to the Supreme Court that it does not guarantee American aid in the West Philippine Sea disputes, and essentially argues that EDCA is only intended to assist, not supplant, Philippine national defense.


Despite the furor raised in some quarters, this is actually the most accurate and sensible statement that can and should be made concerning the EDCA. Any other statement would be a lie given the clear US position on the WPS disputes which have been consistently expressed for decades.

The Solicitor General’s admission highlights the cold reality of US policy on the disputes, and acknowledges that ultimately the burden of defending and protecting the national territory should always be the sole responsibility of the Philippine Government. 

This does not mean, however, that the EDCA, as well as the entire PH-US defense alliance founded on the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, is useless and therefore should be discarded.

On the contrary, an honest and correct assessment of the role of EDCA in the WPS disputes is an essential step in understanding its primary utility and essential role in managing the trajectory of the disputes in the South China Sea, including the WPS. “There is no guarantee, but this helps,” to paraphrase the Solicitor General, in response to the query as to whether the US would come to our aid in case the disputes escalate and the Kalayaan Islands are invaded. Clearly, the extent to which these agreements help is actually in their deterrent effect, not their remedial value. After all, national defense should not only be concerned with waging wars, but also reducing the risk and preventing armed conflict.

The MDT, the Visiting Forces Agreement, the Mutual Logistics Support Agreement, and EDCA should be seen as a system of primary and secondary agreements that support, and indeed should never completely replace, Philippine national defense. 

Unfortunately, in the ongoing public discourse, many opponents and advocates of the EDCA implicitly assume that the purpose of these agreements is to guarantee automatic US intervention in its territorial and jurisdictional interests in the West Philippine Sea. This is evident in the question constantly asked: “Will the US assist us in defending the WPS?” In making this assumption, both camps actually fall into the trap of accepting Philippine national defense will always be inherently and irretrievably dependent on US beneficence. Neither side is therefore able to imagine what an independent national defense policy and strategy should be like, accurately identify the role that defense alliances should play in guarding the national interest, and most importantly, appreciate the heavy burden and responsibility that national defense truly entails. 

US neutrality on the SCS disputes

US neutrality in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea is long-standing and well-known, and most recently reiterated by the US State Department in its Limits in the Seas No. 143 publication recently released on China’s maritime claims.

Such neutrality is understandable and should not be expected to change, given that Philippine sovereignty over the islands, rocks and other features in the Kalayaan Islands were actively exercised only in the 1970s, long after the MDT was signed. Despite the long history between the two countries, it would be naive to expect the US to unreservedly and unquestioningly discard its own national interests and risk lives and resources for the Philippines’ Kalayaan Islands. The parameters of this neutrality and its relationship to the MDT were laid back in 1973-1976 when the Philippines attempted several times to pull the US into protecting Philippine troops occupying the Kalayaan Islands.

Declassified communications between the US State Department and its Embassy in Manila reveal the fine line that the US treads in its defense relations with the Philippines when it comes to the WPS disputes.

It began on January 23, 1973, after the Philippines occupied Pag-asa, Lawak and Patag Islands in response to Taiwan-occupied Itu Aba firing warning shots against Philippine ships and aircraft. After requests for assurances from the Philippine government, the US Embassy sought guidance from the State Department. The latter simply responded that “the US position has been and continues to be that it takes no position with respect to the conflicting claims to the islands.” 

However, this was tested a year later when China forcefully seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam; there were fears that China would move eastwards to take the Spratlys. Then-Secretary Carlos P. Romulo again sought US assurances, so US Ambassador William Sullivan sent a secret priority diplomatic cable to Washington DC and US Pacific Command on January 23, 1974, noting that Filipino military units were stationed on the Kalayaan Islands, and concerned over the possibility of a Chinese invasion. Sullivan was reasonably concerned over the possibility of a Chinese invasion of the Spratly islands:

“…I assume Department is aware that, in accordance with Articles 4 and 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, each party ‘recognizes that an armed attack in the Pacific Area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its own constitutional processes’. For the purpose of this action, ‘an armed attack on either of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack on the metropolitan territory of either of the Parties or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific, or on its Armed Forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.

“…From our reading of this Agreement, a Chinese military attack against the Spratleys in a manner similar to the recent attack on the Paracels could involve an armed attack against the Armed Forces of the Philippines and therefore require the United States ‘to act to meet the common dangers’. If the Department shares this interpretation of the Agreement, I would suggest that action be taken to bring these facts to the attention of the Chinese authorities in Peking in order to forewarn them against the prospect that military adventures in the Spratleys could engage their [sic] with the interests of the United States.” 

Sullivan became more concerned three days later when he subsequently learned that the US was “surprised” by the Chinese attack on the Paracels, and he concluded that “there is reasonable possibility of surprise Chinese action against Spratly group with inadequate US intelligence alert.” He reiterated his request for an authoritative interpretation of the US obligations under the MDT and a demarche to Peking to warn them that military action against Philippine armed forces would engage the US obligations under the MDT. Guidance was not immediately forthcoming, however, as the tensions died down and it was found that the taking of the Paracels was an unexpected and unplanned incident that arose from an escalation of bickering between Chinese and Vietnamese fishermen on one of the Vietnamese-controlled islands.

Kissinger’s take

A month later, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in a secret cable stated that “there are substantial doubts that Filipine [sic] military contingent on island in the Spratley group would come within protection of (MDT).”  He noted that the Spratlys did not come within the treaty limits of the Philippines which defined the jurisdiction of the US and Philippines for purposes of the MDT, and expressed that the State Department would be “most reluctant to accept” an extension of the MDT to the Spratly islands. 

More than a year later on May 5, 1975, after South Vietnamese troops occupying some islands in the South China Sea were dislodged by North Vietnamese troops, worries over a potential Vietnamese attack arose. The US, however, assessed that such an attack was not likely, and Kissinger could only state that “the preferred legal position is that the Treaty does not apply and as a practical matter that is the only conclusion we can reach. If (Vietnam or China) …should attack the Philippine-held territory in the Spratlys, we would of course consider helpful political actions regardless of our Treaty obligations.” He also instructed Sullivan to avoid further discussions of the issue, apart from reiterating US neutrality on the claims and support for peaceful settlement of the disputes by the parties themselves.

Kissinger was able to detail the US legal interpretation of the applicability of the MDT in another secret cable on June 9, 1975. He began by stating outright that the US did not consider any of the Spratlys as falling within the MDT:

“…In (the US Government’s) view, Spratley Islands do not fall within either of the first two categories of Article V relating to territories. First category evidently covers those territories over which a party is recognized as sovereign. As you are aware, USG regards question of sovereignty over Spratlys (including ‘Freedomland’ or ‘Kalayaan’) as undetermined, and we take no position merits of claims of various disputants. We note that at time MDT signed, (the Government of the Philippines) had asserted no claim to any of the Spratly Islands, and had protested neither Vietnamese nor Chinese claims, which had been reiterated at time of negotiation of 1951 Japanese Peace Treaty. (US Government) announced publicly at the time it considered sovereignty question undetermined. Furthermore, Spratly Islands all fall outside Philippine territory as ceded in to US by 1898 Treaty with Spain. (US Government) maps accompanying presentation of MDT also exclude Spratlys from territories covered by MDT.”

Kissinger emphasized that until the sovereignty disputes were resolved by the claimants, the US could not consider the MDT as applicable to the Kalayaan Islands:

“(This) does not mean Phils could not expand territory over which it is sovereign. We do not see legal basis at this time, however, for supporting the claim to Spratlys of one country over that of other claimants. Continuous, effective, and unconstested occupation and administration of territory is a primary foundation for establishing sovereignty in absence of international settlement, but Phil occupation could hardly be termed uncontested in face of claims and protests of Chinese and Vietnamese. (The US Government) would welcome and recognize international settlement agreed to by all claimants, though we acknowledge this would be cold comfort in light of present political realities.”

On the Philippine argument that the MDT would nonetheless apply to an attack on Philippine ships and aircraft stationed in the Spratlys, Kissinger stated,

“We do not believe this aspect of Treaty gives either Party carte blanche to deploy forces anywhere in the Pacific with the assurance that the other Party will be bound by the MDT in the event of attack on those forces. Commitment in the event of attack on forces must be construed in context of overall purpose and provisions of MDT. Preamble sets forth collective defense purpose and provisions of MDT and reaffirms parties’ commitments to principles and purposes of UN Charter, while in Article I Parties undertake to refrain from ‘threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with UN Charter.’

“Under most foreseeable circumstances, the Treaty would apply if either Party were attacked on high seas or in international air space. MDT could also presumably apply in event of external armed attack on forces of either Party deployed in a third country in the Pacific with the consent, and for the defense, of that third country… If MDT commitments then clearly extend beyond cases of territorial attack, it should be noted that the above cases all hypothesize an attack of forces deployed for defense purposes where they have a clear international law right to be.”

The crux of the matter was that the US Government viewed the Kalayaan Islands claim as a matter of territorial expansion, not territorial defense:

“Hypothetical attack on Phil garrisons in Spratlys presents different case in the sense that the (US Government) has not recognized sovereignty of any third State over islands occupied by (Government of the Philippines). However, we have also not recognized (Government of the Philippines) sovereignty over islands. In this situation, while we would not term Phil occupation as illegal invasion of another State, neither can we term this deployment as aspect of collective defense purpose of MDT. Rather, we view the purpose of (Government of the Philippines) garrison as establishing and enforcing a claim to sovereignty over openly disputed territory. MDT in our view does not obligate us to support this type of deployment in event of armed attack.”

Legitimate rights

In other words, the US underlined that the MDT applied to the legitimate defense of pre-existing territories and legitimate exercise of international rights such as navigation, not to contested expansion:  

“We would emphasize as well that in our view territorial defense commitments of Parties are embraced in first two categories of Article V. We do not consider that commitment in event of attack on forces can be boot-strapped into commitment for defense of territory not included in first two categories by deploying forces in such territory. …MDT may apply in event of attack on forces deployed to third countries, which would of course have additional effect of assisting in defense of such third country territory. Deployment for defense of third country territory, however, is fundamentally different from case where deployment is for purpose of enlarging Philippine territory.”

This was not, however, entirely satisfactory even to Sullivan, who persisted in seeking greater clarity on the MDT’s application to attacks on Philippine ships and aircraft. In a cable dated August 3, 1976 before an official visit by Deputy Secretary of State Charles Robinson, Sullivan stated that he personally considered the State Department’s guidance to be “obviously inadequate,” and considered the political implications to be much more important than the legal: 

“Since the Pacific is never defined in the Treaty and since the South China Sea is presumably part of the Pacific Area, it would seem likely that an attack upon the Armed Forces or a public vessel of the Philippines in the South China Sea would activate Article IV which requires the Parties to ‘act to meet the common dangers’. Any failure on our part to ‘act’ would publicly appear to be a repudiation of our Treaty obligations and a reneging upon our Mutual Defense Treaty.

“Nevertheless State Department lawyers, in response to a specific inquiry from this Embassy on the subject, have contrived a rationale to substantiate a failure to act… Much as this rationale might satisfy their legal niceties it would not, of course, stand up in the court of public opinion. We would clearly appear to be in default if we do not respond in some way to any attacks which the Filipinos may sustain in the Spratlys.”

US flexibility on Reed Bank

While the US outlined clear parameters insofar as unrecognized territorial claims were concerned, it also acknowledged that the MDT retained some flexibility when it came to the exercise of maritime rights which at the time were evolving through the process of negotiation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. 

The Philippine government, being unable to secure US security guarantees for the Kalayaan Islands, then attempted to pull in the US by another track, by opening Reed Bank for commercial petroleum exploration by US companies in 1975 and holding hostage the continued stay of US military bases in the Philippines. 

Reed Bank presented a different kind of problem; since it was a submerged area that could legitimately form part of the Philippine continental shelf (in the mid-1970s the extent of the continental shelf was still evolving through the UNCLOS negotiations), it was not an unrecognized territorial claim but a possible prospective maritime entitlement. However, the problem was that the geographic extent of such entitlement could not yet be defined due to the disputes. As explained by Assistant Secretary Philip Habib in a telegram to Sullivan on August 4, 1976:

“The situation with respect to Reed Bank is considerably more complex. Basically it may be said that whichever State is considered to be the rightful sovereign of the Spratlys would have a claim to Reed Bank as part of the shelf appertaining to the Spratlys. If the (Philippines) itself had sovereignty over the Spratlys, there would presumably be no issue over Reed Bank. But if one of the other claimants to the Spratlys were considered their rightful sovereign, …(the Philippines) could still make a plausible legal argument to be entitled to part or all of the Reed Bank area. Since we regard the sovereignty of the Spratlys to be disputed and since the status of the Reed Bank depends on that of the Spratlys, we take the position that Reed Bank is also disputed and likewise take no position on the respective merits of the claims to the shelf areas.”

Subsequently, on August 8, 1976, Habib sent an aide-memoire to Kissinger acknowledging a different track with respect to activities on Reed Bank despite US neutrality on the contesting claims:

“On the Reed Bank the reciprocal nature of our defense treaty has evolved in ways unforeseen in the 1950s. Legally there is some flexibility in our position on this question, but the political and congressional restraints require further analysis…

“The Treaty applies to all the territory of the Philippines (and not just to US forces or facilities there), but we cannot interpret the MDT as automatically applying to disputed areas such as the Spratlys and Reed Bank. However, if those disputes were negotiated or adjudicated, we would respect the results as valid, and those areas determined to be part of Philippine territory would clearly be covered by the Treaty.”

Pushing the boundaries

The remaining flexibility of US policy originally identified in the 1976 is actually what we see playing out through EDCA and US rotational presence in the Philippines. 

Since 2010, China’s assertiveness in pursuing its own claims in the South China Sea has pushed the boundaries of acceptable conduct in asserting maritime claims, and endangered peace and security in the region. Its deliberate policy of deploying its coast guard to coercively intervene in the fishing and petroleum exploration activities of the Philippines and Vietnam close to their own mainland is inconsistent with the US preference for a peaceful resolution of the disputes, in which it takes no sides.

The confrontations instigated by Chinese Coast Guard vessels, nominally civilian but still well-armed and shadowed by Chinese Navy warships, are seen by the US as potential dangers to security and stability in a region in which international interests converge. Although it cannot take sides in the disputes, it also cannot idly watch disputing parties come to blows and potentially ignite armed conflict because such conflicts would affect far more than the disputing parties’ parochial interests. As explained by Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russell to the US Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs just last June 25:

“In the Asia-Pacific region, Beijing’s neighbors are understandably alarmed by China’s increasingly coercive efforts to assert and enforce its claims in the South China and East China Seas. A pattern of unilateral Chinese actions in sensitive and disputed areas is raising tension and damaging China’s international standing. Moreover, some of China’s actions are directed at US treaty allies. The United States has important interests at stake in these seas: freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, respect for international law, and the peaceful management of disputes. We apply the same principles to the behavior of all claimants involved, not only to China. China –as a strong and rising power- should hold itself to a high standard of behavior; to willfully disregard diplomatic and other peaceful ways of dealing with disagreements and disputes in favor of economic or physical coercion is destabilizing and dangerous.

“The United States does not take sides on the sovereignty questions underlying the territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, but we have an interest in the behavior of states in their management or resolution of these disputes. We want countries, including China, to manage or settle claims through peaceful, diplomatic means. For example, the Philippines and Indonesia have just done so in connection with their EEZ boundary. Disputes can also be addressed through third-party dispute resolution processes. Where parties’ rights under treaties may be affected, some treaties provide for third-party dispute settlement, as is the case of the Law of the Sea Convention, an avenue pursued by the Philippines in an arbitration with China currently being considered by an Arbitral Tribunal constituted under that treaty. The United States and the international community oppose the use or the threat of force to try to advance a claim, and view such actions as having no effect in strengthening the legitimacy of China’s claims. These issues should be decided on the basis of the merits of China’s and other claimants’ legal claims and adherence to international law and norms, not the strength of their militaries and law enforcement ships or the size of their economies.”

Thus, apart from neutrality on the territorial claims, two other elements of US policy from the 1970s to the present are consistent: one is the recognition that the Philippines may have legitimate maritime rights to part or all of Reed Bank if the dispute should ever be resolved, and the second is that such resolution should in any case be achieved by the parties mutually through peaceful means.

The third element to tie these together is the recently-released US position on China’s maritime claims, wherein the US analyses China’s 9 dashed lines maps and concludes that it cannot be validly interpreted as a claim to either national boundary lines or boundaries for historic waters/rights, but can only understood as a claim to sovereignty over the islands within the lines. 

This interpretation implies that China can lawfully claim only maritime zones in accordance with UNCLOS within those lines, and under the current state of international law and state practice, in the absence of any agreements with her neighbors like the Philippines, beyond 12 nautical miles China can at best only legitimately claim maritime rights and entitlements up to the provisional equidistance line between the different islands entitled to the 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.  

However, international jurisprudence has generally adjusted this equidistance line by giving lesser weight to small islands vis-à-vis larger mainland coastlines, such that countries with longer coastlines facing small islands can expect to be entitled to push the boundary line closer to the small island and further from the mainland coastline. Therefore, the locations of likely legitimate and illegitimate exercises of rights or assertions of jurisdiction could be more reasonably anticipated. And this is precisely the reason why China has reacted vociferously against the US assessment of the 9 dashed lines: the correct application of international law will certainly require China to pull back from its expansive claims, and to a certain extent validate the claims of the Philippines and other States around the South China Sea.

For the Philippines in particular, what these three elements connote is US recognition of the possibility that the Philippines may entitled to most or all of Reed Bank if the territorial and maritime disputes could be resolved, but that entitlement is in danger of being preemptively and unjustly denied on account of China’s increasingly coercive unilateral actions in the West Philippine Sea.

This then runs counter to the US preference for a peaceful and mutual resolution of the disputes, which is essential for long-term stability in the region, as well as its long-standing interest in ensuring maritime mobility for both military and commercial purposes. 

Converging interests

This is where the Philippines’ more limited interest in protecting its stake in the WPS converge with the US and international community’s broader interests in freedom of navigation and overflight, unimpeded lawful commerce, peaceful settlement of disputes, and international law.

In addition, there is also recognition that where the legitimate presence/rights of Philippine ships or aircraft are threatened (of which there is presently a greater possibility due to China’s increasing assertiveness), then US obligations under the MDT might be engaged. Sullivan correctly understood that despite the “legal niceties” raised by the State Department, US inaction in such an event would jeopardize American prestige and reliability not only with respect to the Philippines, but with respect to all its other allies all over the world with whom it has mutual defense agreements.

Therefore, EDCA can only be understood as an attempt to address the converging interests of both countries, first by providing an avenue and opportunity for the upgrading and complementation of the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, on one hand, and second by enabling continuous US presence in the region that discourages more dangerous and destabilizing behavior on the part of China or any other States.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines is clearly wanting in external defense capabilities, including those necessary to protect its interests in the West Philippine Sea. Typhoon Yolanda last year underscored the AFP’s utter lack of sufficient assets for logistics and mobility within our own uncontested territory, a fundamental element in any credible military,  much less in territory claimed by other countries. More serious are inadequacies in basic external defense such as naval and aerial surveillance, maritime patrol, and air intercept capabilities. 

None of these shortcomings can be instantly addressed, as procurement of equipment, training of personnel, maintenance of assets, and development of operational procedures and doctrines take years. Yet the challenge to external defense already exists, with China’s maritime security forces already on the horizon (and in some places, nearly on the beach).

EDCA is supposed to be a stop-gap measure that is intended to provide a window of opportunity and breathing room for upgrading the Armed Forces, in the meantime filling in the gaps through access to US facilities, assets, and equipment insofar as they may be useful to the former in carrying out its mandate of protecting the national territory.

Thus, through EDCA the Philippines can, for example, have access to satellite and aerial surveillance, long-range remote sensing of maritime activities, signals and electronic intelligence, etc., all of which are essential for maritime domain awareness but are beyond the AFP’s current capabilities. 

A more active US presence in the region is promoted by the rotation of US military assets in and around the country, which has the effect of deterring potentially dangerous encounters in the air or at sea with military and para-military forces. The normal operations of US military ships and aircraft normally entail a wide range of surveillance and preparatory activities which could serve the purpose of providing continually updated and advance information and awareness so sorely needed to pre-empt any “surprise” military and para-military adventures. 

Mere proximity of US military assets could also provide a protective, or at least comforting, presence for Philippine military or public ships and aircraft engaged in activities that don’t threaten the status quo; an example of this is how the Philippine resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal early this year was subtly supported by US military surveillance aircraft monitoring the situation. And the fact that the US acknowledges a reasonable degree of flexibility and remaining ambiguity in its options to respond to any threat or attack on Philippine ships and aircraft at least in the Reed Bank area is presently enough to at least make any potential aggressor hesitate and think twice.

US military presence clearly provides a soft buffer, not a hard wall, against feared Chinese coercion or aggression, and that is the most that can be expected in light of US neutrality on the disputes.

Challenge to Philippine national defense

This is not to say that EDCA, and its basic foundation the MDT, should be blindly welcomed and extolled as an absolute and unquestionable guarantee for Philippine interests in the WPS.

What it does, as the Solicitor General says, is only to help, not to completely solve our problems of protecting our sovereignty and rights in the area. This is as it should be: when the Philippines threw its hat into the ring of the SCS disputes in the late 1970s, it did so in the pursuit of its own exclusive interests, whether in fisheries or petroleum or other resources, not anyone else’s, least of all, the US. 

Documents reveal that US neutrality is not simply an arbitrary and inequitable refusal to support Philippine claims: there are actual legal and political concerns that hinder US support. 

Policy- and decision-makers at present should abandon the notion that the Philippines should somehow persuade the US to carry the burden of securing its sovereignty to the Kalayaan Islands and jurisdictions in the WPS. Twice before in history have Philippine leaders attempted through treaties to legally commit foreign powers to take care of their claims to sovereignty for them, in both cases, those leaders ended up losing their claims. 

In the constitutional challenge before the Supreme Court, it is clear that arguments on the wisdom of the EDCA entail political questions, which even the Court’s expanded powers of judicial review do not encompass.

The legitimate legal questions within the Court’s competence are those identified by petitioners’ Dean Pacifico Agabin, which Solicitor General Hilbay argued against, as to whether the EDCA should be considered as an independent treaty that must comply with the requirements of Article XVIII, Sec. 25 or an implementing executive agreement that is outside its scope, and whether the agreement may be challenged on other substantive grounds. 

Only when the emotionalism of unabashedly political arguments is removed from the judicial stage, can the cold impartial neutrality expected of the Honorable Justices of the Supreme Court be properly brought to bear.

Constitutional trap

How the EDCA compares to the old Military Bases Agreement can be clearly assessed through a reading and tabular comparison of the various agreements’ provisions, and application of relevant judicial precedents. Among the key questions that should be asked is whether the EDCA creates entirely new and independent obligations, or simply update and refine pre-existing ones, or even lighten former burdens. These would help determine whether the EDCA should be considered as an independent treaty equivalent to a new military bases agreement, or a modern implementing instrument of the MDT.

Outside of these legal questions, what remain are actually questions of Executive wisdom.

The issues of whether the EDCA and its implementation are being prematurely judged, or surrenders national sovereignty, or is an irrelevant relic of the Cold War, or caters to US interests more than Philippine interests, or allies us with an undesirable ally, or does not help the Philippines in its dispute against China, etc. are actually questions of executive policy, not legal questions subject to judicial interpretation and adjudication.

The Supreme Court would be caught in a constitutional trap if it makes decisions based its own assessment of the politics and wisdom of the agreement, which are beyond the judicial power and function. Such arguments can make good copy in the press, but lead to poor decisions in jurisprudence.

It is in the court of public opinion that political questions are customary fare, and whether or not such questions about EDCA must be eventually threshed out and answered by the Senate or are entrusted to Executive decision alone are proper subjects of political debate.

But in that arena, rather than dwelling on legalities, attention must be shifted from the US role and instead focused on the Armed Forces and the defense establishment: whether or not we have sufficiently learned from our history to prevent another spiral into absolute and endless dependency on the US security umbrella, and whether we are capable of independently prosecuting our own defense strategy and protect our territorial integrity within a specifically defined time frame.

“There is no free lunch,” as the saying goes, and if we are serious about pursuing and protecting the WPS, then we must be prepared to pay the costs on our own, whether by allocating an adequate defense budget on our own, or entering into security alliances and arrangements with other countries, or by negotiating compromises with our potential adversaries.   

In the end, people either seeking to discard EDCA on the basis of its inability to ensure a US automatic defense of the WPS, or promote EDCA as the ultimate solution to our territorial and maritime disputes, should be brought to the ground to face a stark reality and accept a serious responsibility: only the Philippines can and should be involved in this exclusively Filipino endeavor.

The question to be asked is not whether, on account of EDCA, the US will give us the WPS; rather, it is whether EDCA will enable us to achieve our objectives in the WPS, with or without the US.  In these complicated disputes, the US can assist only so far in achieving our goals; the rest of it, is completely up to us. – Rappler.com


Dr Jay L. Batongbacal is Assistant Professor, University of the Philippines College of Law and Director, UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. He is on leave and temporarily affiliated with the East West Center in Washington, as a US-ASEAN Fulbright Initiative Visiting Scholar, doing research on evolving US maritime security policies and their impact on the resort to international arbitration and the Rule of Law in the South China Sea disputes. This article incorporates the preliminary results of the author’s initial research that has just begun.









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