Even the United States may have been surprised by how fast events unfolded in its former colony and oldest Asian ally, the Philippines. Not only was it granted access to four additional military sites, but there is now discussion about joint patrols in the South China Sea and a trilateral hub-and-spokes security accord between the U.S., Japan, and the Philippines. To cap it off, one of the biggest annual military drills will also be held in northern Luzon, which faces Taiwan, this April.
The U.S. hoped for improved bilateral ties as the Philippines headed to polls last year. But little prepared them for the windfall. What America failed to obtain in six years under former leader Rodrigo Duterte, it got in just eight months under incumbent President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. This quick turnaround raised concerns from several Filipino lawmakers, inquiring about the process behind these rapid developments and asking whether the gains from taking such bold and hasty steps outweigh potential risks and losses. More importantly, it begs whether these signal the unraveling of an independent foreign policy in favor of a more partial one. In the escalating great power contest, is Manila now casting its lot – hook, line, and sinker - with the U.S.?
Expanded military access as a vital cog in integrated deterrence
The EDCA was a big win for the U.S. in its strategic competition with China. The agreement allows the U.S. to deploy troops on extended stays, preposition equipment, and build and operate military facilities in the Philippines. The ten-year pact is due to expire next year, and its renewal will coincide with the decisive decade in U.S.-China rivalry as outlined in the U.S. National Security Strategy released last October. It is a vital cog in the integrated deterrence with allies and partners.
EDCA should not be taken in isolation. Over 500 miles east of the Philippines, the U.S. is in talks with Palau to renew a Compact of Free Association Agreement (COFA) also set to end next year. Neighboring Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia are also negotiating COFA agreements with Washington due to expire this year. COFA allows U.S. military access to these central Pacific island states in return for economic provisions.
Hence, in the critical decade of major power contests, security continues to dominate the United States’ overall strategy in the Indo-Pacific. From upgrading forward deployed troops in Japan to large-scale drills with Seoul and Tokyo, arms sales to Taiwan, expanded military footprint in the Philippines, radars in Palau, renewed access to Pacific island nations, and building a new marine base in Guam, the U.S. armed forces are on a roll. But this same level of intensity in the military sphere is yet to be matched by trade or investment pledges, reinforcing the view that America's game in the region remains to be more arms than butter.
Nine bases as the "sum of our fears"?
The EDCA bears on the Philippines' domestic politics and foreign relations. Local leaders and several legislators have expressed serious concern about the hurried pace of EDCA implementation and expansion. House Deputy Speaker Ralph Recto asked for transparency, suggesting that an assessment of the pros and cons of the deal be made public. He wondered whether the nine EDCA bases represent the "sum of our fears." Senator Ana Theresia "Risa" Hontiveros cautioned against rushing EDCA and encouraged defense planners to maximize existing sites before considering adding new locations.
In a Senate hearing on EDCA, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair and presidential sister Maria Imelda Josefa Remedios "Imee" Marcos questioned the growing emphasis on northern Luzon opposite Taiwan, far from Manila's preoccupation with the West Philippine Sea. Reports cite two proposed areas in Cagayan and one in Isabela, both provinces in the northern part of the country. This April, grand Balikatan military exercises between Filipino and American troops will take place in the president's home province of Ilocos Norte and in the neighboring offshore islands of Fuga, Calayan, and Batanes very close to Taiwan.
Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba said that putting up EDCA sites in his province is deeply concerning, as they will surely get hit should cross-Strait hostilities break out. He said he is yet to be consulted about the matter. The absence of such consent from concerned local government units may be a factor behind deferring the disclosure of the exact additional sites.
Dubbed the Solid North, northern Luzon is a traditional stronghold of the Marcos family. Hence, President Marcos Jr. will be well advised to proceed with caution and not be seen as pushing EDCA down the throats of unwilling local leaders who may exact vengeance in the coming 2025 midterm elections. The disintegration of this bailiwick will not bode well for the future political ambitions of his son, Ferdinand Alexander "Sandro" III, who is currently the Representative of the First District of Ilocos Norte and Deputy Majority Leader in Congress.
Filipino leaders resent reducing the country's significance to its strategic location and where it stands in the simmering geopolitical faultlines. Senator Ronald "Bato" de la Rosa hinted at this saying that the U.S. only remembers the Philippines due to the pacing challenge posed by China.
Fallout for the region and the alliance
As greater access by a foreign power will have reverberations beyond security, Senator Francis Tolentino encouraged the Foreign Affairs and Defense Departments to outline not only the military dimension of EDCA, but also its economic, political, diplomatic, and strategic implications. The country needs to take into full account all the pluses and minuses that come with EDCA and identify necessary measures to mitigate the adverse fallout. Local leaders worry about losing trade, tourism, and capital from China. As such, the alliance should consider providing a financial or investment package to offset possible losses for host provinces. Manila should drive hard bargains like everyone else, including minute Pacific island nations renegotiating the terms of U.S. military access in their sovereign territory. For the tremendous risks it will bear, it’s right to ask for more cushion.
Two new EDCA sites will face the South China Sea, adding to the existing one in Palawan opposite the Spratlys. If EDCA is a move in a great power chess game, including in the semi-enclosed sea, China may take it as a cue and up the pressure on Cambodia to secure access and accelerate the development of the Ream naval base. Beyond China, other littoral states may also not share the Philippines’ enthusiasm to pursue joint patrols with the U.S. and other non-claimant parties in choppy waters. In fact, Manila’s move may be seen as taking a side when everyone in ASEAN continues to play it safe. The presence of more Chinese and American vessels and aircraft in the contested space raise the risk of accidents, fueling concerns of regional countries. Furthermore, minilaterals, like the Philippines-U.S.-Japan security arrangement, may also be seen as undermining ASEAN’s centrality. Hence, there is worry that Manila’s step may greenlight other ASEAN countries to follow suit and cut their own deals with bickering great powers.
Early this month, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim became the first head of state to visit Manila. On the maritime flashpoint, he said that "due to the complexity and sensitivity of the issue, we should try and engage and take the position at a multilateral level between ASEAN so that we have a comprehensive approach and achieve an amicable resolution to this outstanding problem." That may be a subtle expression of concern about its neighbor’s direction.
Finally, the trajectory of EDCA's expansion also exposed the bedrock of the Philippine-U.S. alliance to questioning. Senate Minority Leader Aquilino "Koko" Pimentel III said that defending a territory that a treaty partner imposed upon itself an obligation to defend is no longer within the scope of the Mutual Defense Treaty. Such remarks underpin not only increased anxiety but also a desire by a junior partner to have a greater say in charting the future of the alliance, especially as it stands on the frontline of an increasingly fraught neighborhood.