Eyes on the Prize? Philippines-US Alliance and Defense Modernization by Julio S. Amador III (Issue 12, December 2014)

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EYES ON THE PRIZE? PHILIPPINES-US ALLIANCE
AND DEFENSE MODERNIZATION

by: Julio S. Amador III

The  Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States of America and the Republic of the Philippines is now being challenged in the Philippines’ Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. Petitioners against the EDCA argue  that  the agreement  violates  the  Philippines’  prohibition  against  foreign  bases  unless  the  Senate  concurs  with  the agreement. The government says the EDCA is an executive agreement and not a treaty; thus, there is no need for the Senate’s concurrence. Beyond the legal, the strategic and policy considerations loomed large in the Supreme Court hearings.

What is the EDCA?  The agreement, signed in April 2014 by National Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin for the Philippines and Ambassador Philip Goldberg for the US, revitalizes the Philippines-US bilateral security alliance to help the Philippines attain a minimum credible defense posture to respond to regional and global security challenges. The EDCA implements the need to develop the Philippines and the US’ defense capabilities in the Asia Pacific region as agreed upon in the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). The EDCA allows and regulates access and use by the US military of agreed upon areas of some facilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Both sides undertake high-impact and high-value security cooperation exercises, and joint and combined training activities that promote interoperability and capacity building. The experience of the Philippines with the destructive typhoon, Haiyan, also showed the importance of having immediate humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR), of which the US was able to provide.

The anti-EDCA side argues that the EDCA violates the Philippines’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. The agreement is also deemed one-sided as it is claimed that it advances only the US’ interest. An important angle raised in the Supreme Court hearings is the strategic concerns in the West Philippine Sea, particularly the maritime disputes involving the Philippines and China. The Supreme Court hearings brought out the continuing inadequacy of the AFP to provide minimum credible defense in light of the challenges in an uncertain regional strategic environment.

While the legal questions are very important, particularly because they touch on sensitive issues for a lot of Filipinos, the problem of defense modernization and credibility is going to be a continuing problem that needs to be addressed.

Under President Benigno S. Aquino III, the Philippines has been seriously engaging in defense modernization. The first phase was to re-orient the focus of the AFP from internal to external security. Under the US security umbrella, which has been in place since the colonial period and strengthened during the Cold War, the Philippines chose to address internal security issues such as responding to a continuing communist insurgency and confronting secessionist issues in Southern Philippines. Now driven by an uncertain regional strategic environment, the government has devoted more resources to a much-needed modernization. The  AFP  instituted  the  Long-Term  Capability  Development  Program   for  the  acquisition  of  multi-purpose attack vessels, naval helicopters, patrol aircrafts and frigates. From the US, the Philippines purchased two decommissioned Hamilton-class cutters named BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and BRP Ramon Alcaraz. From South Korea, the Philippines acquired 12 TA-50  Golden  Eagle  light  attack aircrafts  built  by  Korea  Aerospace Industries.  The  Philippines  is  also  looking  at  Italy  as  a source  of  military  assets  and  there  are  plans  to  procure  three  AW-109  naval  helicopters  and  two  Mestral  frigates.  From 2002, the defense budget, which was US$1.9 billion, rose to US$2.5 billion in 2012.

For the 2015 budget of the AFP, the following were included for procurement: lead-in fighter trainer jets ammunition, longrange patrol aircraft, multi-purpose attack craft, rocket launchers and base upgrades. The AFP was given a budget of around 553  million  USD  for  these  defense  projects.  As  of  September  2014,  37 military  upgrade  projects  costing  206  million  USD were completed. Other projects are due for completion by 2015.

With these developments, the Philippines is on a slow but deliberate process of defense modernization. Institutional challenges will continue to hamper the process. Corruption in the military is still a concern but there are strong efforts to address this. Philippine defense spending is also low and not on par with regional neighbors. The ASEAN average for defense spending is around 3 percent of GDP while the Philippines spends only about 1 percent, the constitutionally mandated cap on defense spending, which should not exceed that of the expenditures for the education sector.

The Philippines-US alliance is still going to be necessary for the foreseeable future even as defense modernization is being undertaken. Only Filipinos will, in the end, be willing to defend the country’s borders and its territories. Nevertheless, the long and shared history of the two countries indicates the desire to continue working as allies in an ever-changing regional order.

The Philippines must not lose sight of the goal to achieve credible defense and a sustainable modern military at par with its regional neighbors in ASEAN. The Philippines cannot completely rely on the American security umbrella, which is continuously being rained upon by the Chinese, who seem determined to change the regional security order. Self-help remains to be the name of the game in international security but assistance from allies and other strategic partners should not be rejected but instead used judiciously while the modernization process is underway. Hypothetical questions such as whether the US will come to the defense of the Philippines if the latter is attacked by an external party may make for good conversation pieces, but they miss out on the real objective: a strong, capable, and modern AFP that  can  exert  a  defensive  shield  over  the  Philippines’  maritime  boundaries  and territories.

Whether  the EDCA  is rendered  unconstitutional or  whether  other  future  agreements  may  face rough sailing  in  Philippine political and legal contexts, the fact of the matter is that the Philippines will still need to attain minimum defense credibility and build its external security capability. The Philippines-US alliance, through the MDT, the VFA, and the EDCA as an implementing agreement, is only a means to that necessary end.

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*Julio S. Amador III is the Deputy Director-General of the of the Foreign Service Institute.

A  version  of  this  article  was  also  published  in  the  Asia Pacific Bulletin of the East-West Center in Washington.

Mr. Amador can be reached at [email protected].

The  views  expressed  in  this  publication  are  of  the  authors’ alone  and  do not  reflect  the official position  of  the  Foreign Service Institute, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Government of the Philippines.