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PH, US want five more joint military facilities under EDCA, says senior Pentagon official

WASHINGTON —The Philippines and the United States are exploring the possibility of adding five more joint-use military facilities in the country under a key defense pact that allows enlarged rotational presence of US forces and for America to preposition equipment and other military assets, a senior US defense official said Wednesday (Thursday in Manila).

Having more sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA, according to the official, who spoke to visiting Filipino journalists at the Pentagon, would allow the US “to respond more quickly to a range of disasters or crisis that could happen in any number of areas as well as providing greater training” for both sides.

“There are five existing EDCA sites and five additional ones we are looking at,” the official said, adding consultations between Manila and Washington are ongoing.

“We would consult closely and look at the map for additional sites that could be added on to the EDCA in the future,” the official said.

Signed in 2014, EDCA grants US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, the right to construct facilities, and pre-position equipment, aircraft and vessels, but rules out permanent basing. The Philippine Constitution outlaws foreign military bases in the country unless covered by a treaty.

The initial five predetermined sites are located in Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan - near the disputed South China Sea - Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City.

“It will be physically occupied by both forces when it is necessary. But no physical occupation,” Philippine defense attache Colonel Arthur Romanillos Jr said.

Greg Poling, director on Southeast Asia and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said full implementation of EDCA and enhancing its locations require urgency amid current regional challenges, such as the South China Sea disputes and tensions in the Taiwan Straits.

“We need to move with urgency not only to build in five different locations but to add other locations in recognition of additional capabilities the Philippines has gained all those years,” Poling said, citing Manila’s acquisition of modern missile systems.

“The Philippines now has assets it did not have before,” he said. “It will make a lot of sense for the US to help build facilities to support those.”

Filipino and American forces recently conducted military drills in the northern Philippines that showcased advanced US missiles and stealth fighter jets. It was held at a time when Washington has issued stern warnings to China on its aggressive actions against claimants in the South China Sea and Taiwan.

“There are no American forces close enough to actually defend Filipinos should they be attacked in the South China Sea. The Philippines has the matching obligation under the treaty,” said Poling.

“It's unrealistic to expect US assistance come from 1,500 miles away at least quickly. EDCA is absolutely imperative as a stop gap measure to allow the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) to find the means to modernize.”

Manila has turned to its long-standing ally, the U.S., Japan and other western allies in an ongoing effort to modernize its ill-equipped military and strengthen its capability to guard and defend its territory in the South China Sea, which is claimed nearly in its entirety by China.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are locked in decades-long territorial rifts due to overlapping claims in the South China Sea, a major international trade route where huge oil and gas deposits have been discovered in several areas. Analysts feared the maritime row could be a flashpoint for major military confrontations.—LDF, GMA News