In a written question-and-answer interview with Manila’s ABS-CBN News television network, President Obama acknowledged that “given the long history between our nations, some Filipinos have questions about what any new defense agreement might mean.”
“I want to be absolutely clear – the new defense cooperation agreement that we are negotiating is not about trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases. Rather, any new agreement would give American service members greater access to Filipino facilities, airfields and ports, which would remain under the control of the Philippines.”
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed by U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin in Manila, shortly before President Obama arrived for a state visit on Monday.
Goldberg said the agreement “serves as recognition by both sides that there is even more that we can do together to support the alliance and to promote peace and security in the region.”
The Philippines foreign ministry said in a statement the EDCA “elevates to a higher plane of engagement our already robust defense alliance, a cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Earlier an administration official traveling with Obama on his four-nation Asian tour, senior director for Asian affairs Evan Medeiros, called it “the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades.”
Medeiros described the EDCA as a “framework” allowing U.S. forces to exercise with their Philippines counterparts on missions ranging from disaster relief and maritime security to countering weapons of mass destruction proliferation.
“It’s not a basing agreement. This is not a sort of return to bases, so to speak,” he said, adding that the scope, duration and timing of the presence had still to be worked out with the Philippines.
He compared it to a similar agreement reached with Australia, where since 2012 U.S. Marines have been deployed in rotation in Darwin, Northern Territory, for training and as a base for humanitarian and military operations in the region.
Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, also briefing reporters, said the agreement was “about Filipino bases. So just as in Darwin, we didn’t build a U.S. base, this is about how do we cooperate on Filipino facilities.”
Although the Philippines is one of several Southeast Asian countries embroiled in territorial disputes with China over resource-rich areas of the South China Sea – and there have been some tense standoffs between the two – the two administration officials insisted the EDCA was not designed with an eye on China.
“We’re not doing this because of China,” Medeiros said. “We’re doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner [in the Philippines]. They’re interested in stepping up our military-to-military engagement.”
At the same time, he reiterated the U.S. stance on maritime disputes in the South China Sea.
“We oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression by any state – any state – to advance their maritime territorial claims,” Medeiros said. “And to the extent that our work with our alliance partners and our security partners helps them become more capable and not being vulnerable to intimidation, coercion or aggression, we think that’s a good thing.”
Rhodes concurred. “I think what we’d say to the Chinese is, number one, the Philippines is a treaty ally to the United States. So the notion that we are going to have enhanced defense cooperation with them is completely consistent with a longstanding treaty commitment.”
Early Chinese reaction to the signing was not long in coming.
“Given that the Philippines is at a bitter territorial row with China, the move is particularly disturbing as it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing,” the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary. “A more assertive or even reckless Manila would stoke regional tensions and in turn upset Obama's policy of rebalancing.”
Beijing’s belligerent approach to its tussle with the Philippines has unsettled many in the country. In an end-of-2013 WIN-Gallup International survey of global opinions, 22 percent of Filipino respondents named China as posing the world’s greatest threat to peace.
But a vocal left-wing element in the Philippines views the U.S. warily, too. (In that same poll, 16 percent of respondents named the U.S. as the biggest threat.)
For some, a 1991 vote by the country’s Senate rejecting a treaty that would have allowed the U.S. to remain at military bases was a major victory for Philippine sovereignty. The move meant an end to the almost century-long U.S. presence at the Subic Bay naval base and the strategic Clark Airbase.
Left-wingers have long harbored suspicions that the U.S. military is trying to return, by stealth. They protested in 1999 when the two countries signed an agreement permitting U.S. ship and aircraft visits and joint military exercises; and again in 2001 when the U.S. began providing assistance and training to Philippine armed forces fighting the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group in the south of the country.
Fresh protests were held outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila in recent days, and a left-wing lawmaker, Neri Colmenares, pledged to challenge the constitutionality of the emerging agreement.
“Maybe there is a rotation of troops but their presence is permanent,” he told China’s CCTV news channel.
“Secondly, the issue of physical basing – they will be there inside Philippine military bases. While in the previous years it was mainly centered on two major bases, Subic and Clark, now it will be centered on almost all areas of the country ,” Colmenares said.
An editorial in the Manila Daily Tribune Monday opined that an agreement allowing U.S. forces and assets to be stationed in Philippine military camps was “much worse than the foreign forces having their own bases in the country since the U.S. now dictates where to trample on the country’s sovereignty.”