Despite President Duterte’s apparent distain for Uncle Sam, it’s been announced that a planned upgrade of American military bases in the Philippines will go ahead.
Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters in Manila today (Thursday, January 26) that the Duterte administrations will honour the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to allow for enhancements at five bases.
“EDCA is still on,” Mr Lorenzana told reporters, adding that his superior was aware of the planned projects and had promised to honour all existing agreements with the USA.
The announcement is at odds with recent anti-American rhetoric from the president. Speaking during a visit to Beijing in October, he said: “America has lost. I’ve realigned myself in your Chinese ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to President Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
This week, US Senator John McCain, chairman of the senate’s Armed Services Committee, proposed $7.5 billion of new military funding for US forces and their allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
The geopolitical landscape in the region has been shaken up by Duterte’s apparent grudge against Washington, his friendly overtures to China, and the election of Donald Trump, who is expected take a much tougher line on China’s militarisation of the South China Sea. (See our recent reports here and here.)
Until the 1990s, the American bases at Clark, Angeles City, and Subic Bay were some of the largest of the world. However, a surge of nationalism in Manila drove the Americans out in 1992 and recent decades have seen only a limited US military presence.
EDCA, which the Obama administration signed with former Filipino President Benign Aquino III in 2014, called for the expansion of a rotational deployment of US ships, aircraft and troops at five bases in the Philippines, as well as the storage of equipment for humanitarian and maritime security operations.
However, Lorenzana also emphasised that the Philippines would maintain a policy of neutrality when dealing with major powers in the region. “We are strategically located, we are in the front, we are also in the middle, whatever the Chinese do when it moves towards the Pacific, we are there. Whatever the US does, if it wants to engage with Asia, we are still in the front,” he said.
He added that President Duterte was now practicing this neutrality policy by talking with countries such as China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
“The president has been very effective but we should maintain our neutrality from all these superpower rivalries and pursue our own foreign policy that is favourable or beneficial to our people,” he added.
The Malacañang has indicated that it wants no part in anything confrontational in the strategic waterway and will not jeopardise promises of extensive Chinese trade and investment and offers of military hardware.
Lorenzana said the Philippines had asked China for two or three fast boats, two drones, sniper rifles and a robot for bomb disposal as part of a $14 million arms donation package. These would be used to support operations against Islamist militants in the southern Philippines, he said.