Some Southeast Asian countries have also expressed apprehensions strengthening American alliances in Asia with the increasing military presence in the Philippines through EDCA can foment greater geopolitical rivalries among competing major powers that can exacerbate regional security tensions leading to regional instabilities.
For example, when the US declared the formation of AUKUS (Australia, United Kingdom, US alliance system) in September 2021, Southeast Asian countries responded with serious apprehensions.
Indonesia, the de-facto leader in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, warned that AUKUS can intensify power projections in Asia, making the region as the fulcrum of major power competition.
Malaysia also expressed wariness that AUKUS can also trigger an Asian arms race.
Singapore conveyed its neutral position but the Philippines welcomed AUKUS as a counter balance to China’s growing power in Asia.
Indeed, EDCA is an essential component of American alliances in Asia aiming to demonstrate to the whole world the US is a resident Indo-Pacific power.
The US regards the Indo-Pacific as vital to American security and prosperity.
The US Indo-Pacific Strategy released in February 2022 candidly declares that the US is determined to strengthen its “long-term position in and commitment to the Indo-Pacific” by focusing “on every corner of the region, from Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia, to South Asia and Oceania, including the Pacific Islands.”
This Strategy also asserts American determination to counter mounting challenges from the People’s Republic of China, to wit:
“This intensifying American focus is due in part to the fact that the Indo-Pacific faces mounting challenges, particularly from the PRC. The PRC is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific and seeks to become the world’s most influential power.
“The PRC’s coercion and aggression spans the globe, but it is most acute in the Indo-Pacific. From the economic coercion of Australia to the conflict along the Line of Actual Control with India to the growing pressure on Taiwan and bullying of neighbors in the East and South China Seas, our allies and partners in the region bear much of the cost of the PRC’s harmful behavior.”
There is a clarity of American interests in implementing EDCA: to support the assertion of American global military leadership as the world’s foremost superpower and to counter all security threats from China as a challenger to American supremacy, particularly in the Taiwan Straits, the Korean Peninsula and the South China Sea.
Does the Philippine government under President Marcos Jr. rally behind the US to advance these interests?
Will EDCA really pursue Philippine national security interests?
It is imperative for the Philippine government to really conduct a serious re-examination and re-definition of Philippine national security interests in light of the evolving international and regional security landscape in the 21st century.
During the cold war, the Philippine government regarded its national interests as identical with the US.
In its aftermath, the Philippines terminated the Military Bases Agreement in 1991 because of the post-cold war security situation leading to a redefinition of Philippine national interests by forging closer identification with the regional interest of Southeast Asian neighbors.
China’s occupation of the Mischief Reef in 1995 convinced the Philippine government to accommodate the return of the US by ratifying the VFA in 1999, especially in the context of the botched AFP modernization program.
China’s reclamation activities that began in 2013 in seven geographic features within the Kalayaan Island Group also compelled the Philippine government to sign the EDCA in 2014.
But increased US military facilities in the Philippines through EDCA can escalate the worsening US-China major power rivalry.
Keeping the American troops in Philippine territories even on rotational basis can raise the risk of dragging the Philippines in an armed conflict that it wants to avoid.
US military facilities in key strategic locations of the Philippines can also raise the possibility of the Philippines as a military target of American adversaries.
As candidly warned by a columnist and strategic analyst Ricardo Saludo, former head of the Presidential Management Staff in the administration of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, EDCA can weaponize the Philippines and wreck us.
If not handled astutely in accordance with clearly defined Philippine national security interests rather than parochial sectoral interests, EDCA can become our country’s source of security risk instead of a security provider under the Marcos Jr administration.
(Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD, is the President of the Philippine Society for Intelligence and Security Studies, Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research and member of the Board of Directors of the China Southeast Asian Research Center on the South China Sea).