Expanded Edca: Benefit or liability?
Following the recent visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III to the Philippines, the government unveiled plans to designate four new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) sites. This announcement was immediately met with protests from leftist groups that raised the issue of the Philippines being dragged into a possible conflict over Taiwan between China and the US due to the former’s provocative actions in the region. The protests expressed fears that our country would be used as a staging ground for US military intervention in the region, and called for the abolition of Edca which was described as a manifestation of subservience to US interests.
To allay such concerns, Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. issued a statement saying that the implementation of Edca would not only boost Philippine security, but also help spur economic investments while preserving and protecting maritime and natural resources.
So, is an expanded Edca a benefit or a liability to the country’s national interest and security?
Looking at the positions and arguments posed by both sides, it appears that it is both a benefit and a liability. It may be recalled that the Edca was signed in 2014 to address China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea and to respond to natural disasters. In his recent statement, Galvez noted that it is an important component of our country’s right to develop and improve its defense capabilities. We do, after all, have a maritime territorial dispute with China and, while our efforts to modernize our military is laudable, it is doubtful that the Philippines in this lifetime would be able to achieve military parity or sufficient capability to deter Chinese aggression on its own. Hence, the importance of an alliance with the US in our national defense strategy, where Edca is part and parcel of the framework.
But it is one thing to defend against Chinese aggression because that is our fight, and we should be willing to pay the price to protect our territory and uphold our sovereignty. However, it is a whole other matter to be dragged into a conflict that is inimical to our interest, such as a war over Taiwan that will directly involve the US in armed hostilities against Chinese forces. In that scenario, our commitment as a treaty ally of the US becomes a liability because our geographic location makes those Edca sites ideal staging areas for US operations.
Even if we are not expected to participate in the conflict, we are very likely to be pressured to support the effort by allowing access to those sites. How China will react to that is anybody’s guess, but it will definitely respond. It doesn’t have to be a military strike; China has many tools at its disposal that could make things difficult for our country.
Ideally, we can all hope that war doesn’t break out and that a tense peace can be maintained in perpetuity. But hope does not make for a reliable and effective policy or strategy, especially when China is adamant about reintegrating Taiwan with the mainland and is willing to go to war to attain that goal.
While calling for the abrogation of Edca as well as the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement may allow us to avoid getting sucked into a possible armed conflict over Taiwan, what happens to our defense posture and strategy in the West Philippine Sea? We will essentially be on our own in dealing with China in that scenario. I wonder what the Filipino fishermen who have been harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard and prevented from fishing in our waters have to say about that. Maybe we can also just hope that China would be nice enough to let us be?
Going back to the question of whether an expanded Edca would be a benefit or a liability, it now becomes a matter of determining which one outweighs the other in terms of the risks involved and the opportunities presented. At this point, the benefit prevails as there is a need to enable both the US and China to cancel out each other’s advantages, so they would refrain from embarking on something that will destabilize the region as the cost to them will be quite high.
Moira G. Gallaga served three Philippine presidents as presidential protocol officer, and was posted as a diplomat at the Philippine consulate general in Los Angeles, and the Philippine Embassy in Washington, DC.