US military expands presence in Philippines despite constitutional ban
US President Barack Obama inked his name to the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement on Monday in Manila as he wrapped up a weeklong tour of the region that included stops in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
But amidst allegations that the US is entering the pact with Philippines just to keep a watchful eye on China’s military, Pres. Obama said the agreement is intended to help uphold international law, even perhaps with the help of the Chinese.
"Our goal is not to counter China. Our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international rules and norms are respected and that includes in the area of international disputes," Obama said at a news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, according to the Associated Press.
According to the AP, Pres. Aquino said the deal "takes our security cooperation to a higher level of engagement, reaffirms our countries' commitment to mutual defense and security and promotes regional peace and stability."
“The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement serves as recognition that there is even more we can do together to support the alliance and promote peace and security in the region,” added US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip S. Goldberg, according to the state-run Philippine Information Agency.
Nevertheless, critics have suggested that the agreement is only authorizing the US to expand its influence in the region and turn the heat up on China in the midst of a territory dispute between Beijing officials and America’s Japanese allies concerning islands in the South China Sea.
On Monday, the Philippines’ Inquirer news outlet write that militant groups in the area are protesting the agreement because they believe it violates the local constitution on account of how it authorizes US troops to make use of island bases. Some opponents, the Inquirer added, also believe that negotiations were fast-tracked in order to be ready in time for Pres. Obama’s arrival this week.
Indeed, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement does contain rules for how the US can use military bases in the Philippines for the next ten years. At the same time, however, a provision in the contract explicitly acknowledged that the US “[cannot] establish military presence or base in the Philippines” by entering the agreement. Instead, local facilities will remain under control of the Philippine military, but US forces will be routinely rotated in to participate in joint training exercises.
“The Philippine Constitution bars permanent US military bases, although hundreds of American military personnel have been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to provide counterterrorism training to Filipino soldiers fighting Muslim militants,” the AP acknowledged on Monday.
Other provisions of the agreement require the US to get prior consent from the Philippines before using agreed upon locations, which will remain the primary responsibility of the local government. If officials allow the US to construct and buildings or ownership during the ten-year tenure, then those facilities will also become property of the Philippines, the agreement also proclaims.
Plans to establish what bases the US will be allowed access to under the deal have yet to be revealed, but the AP speculated that a former US facility at Subic Bay could be re-opened. According to Reuters, a military source believes the US will gradually deploy combat ships, a squadron of F18s or F16s and maritime surveillance aircraft to the Philippines now that the deal has been authorized.