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Senate panel questions EDCA sites' locations, suggests other areas

The Senate committee on foreign relations on Wednesday questioned the locations of EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) sites as well as the supposed disregard on some concerned areas in the country.

During the hearing, Senator Imee Marcos, committee chairperson, said the selected locations seem to be “random” and “no longer purposeful” for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

“I am very interested about this because the choice seems to be random and no longer purposeful with regard to the modernization of the AFP, which at the end of the day is what we are all here for,” she said.

Marcos asked Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. if the Philippine officials are now focusing on the Taiwan Strait instead of the West Philippine Sea considering that many EDCA sites are located in the north.

“So we have given up all claims on the east sector and west sector in the Philippine seas, is that correct? We are now obsessed with the Taiwan Strait?” she said.

Galvez responded, “No, we are still concentrated on the West Philippine Sea.”

Senator Sherwin Gatchalian asked Galvez if the EDCA sites’ locations are strategic for the Philippines or for the US.

“You mentioned earlier that it is strategic, but strategic to whom? Is it strategic for us or for the US?”

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian earlier "advised" the Philippines to oppose Taiwan independence instead of offering the US access to its military facilities near the Taiwan Strait if Manila “genuinely” cared about the 150,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Taiwan.

According to Galvez, the locations are strategic for the Philippines.

Sought for comment as regards the senators views, US Embassy press attache Kanishka Gangopadhay said, "The Philippine and US militaries, through a multi-year annual planning process, worked closely together to identify all nine EDCA locations, which were then approved by the U.S. and Philippine governments." 

"Through EDCA, the United States supports the AFP’s goals of force readiness, military modernization, infrastructure improvements, and interoperability with US forces," he added.

The DND earlier said the new EDCA sites with the US would address internal and external threats as well as improve the disaster response capability of the country.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said the Philippines would not allow the US to use the EDCA sites for activities against China in connection with the tension in the Taiwan Strait.

“We would not agree to any kind of activity or even materials not consistent with the agreed activities. Therefore, I think it would be along those lines that if there were ever proposals, we would have to find out whether it is consistent with these agreements,” he said.

Galvez said he defers to the statement of Manalo.

For disaster response, Marcos questioned why Guiuan, Samar was not picked considering it was badly hit by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 but Cagayan has two new EDCA sites.

Marcos pointed out that provinces in the eastern side of the country should be considered. Gatchalian noted that Bicol, which he said is a gateway of typhoons, is not even included.

Galvez said that the major consideration in picking locations for EDCA sites is the “total defense of the archipelago.”

He noted the vulnerability of the AFP is in the north, adding that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. instructed them to prepare for external defense.

For counterterrorism efforts, Senator Marcos questioned why there is no EDCA site designated in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

Galvez said the military already has a strategically located base in Zamboanga and an extension arrangement in Cotabato City.

Malacañang recently announced four new EDCA sites: Naval Base Camilo Osias in Sta Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; and Balabac Island in Palawan.

Existing EDCA sites are Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, 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.

Earlier during the hearing, Manalo said six of the 16 projects in the five initial EDCA locations would be completed this year.

“There has been significant progress in eight of the remaining 16 projects in the five originally agreed locations. Six of those projects are estimated to be completed in 2023,” said Manalo.

These projects include the runway project at Basa Air Base, storage facility at Mactan Air Base, and the humanitarian assistance and disaster response warehouse at Fort Magsaysay.

Manalo also confirmed that only five EDCA projects have been completed so far.

Signed in 2014, EDCA grants US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, allows them to build facilities, and pre-position equipment, aircraft, and vessels.—AOL, GMA Integrated News