The visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and his high-level talks with President Marcos and his counterpart, Secretary Carlito Galvez, Jr., underlines the strength of the bilateral ties between the two countries. The visit comes at a time of increasing tensions between the US and China on the issue of Taiwan, which is less than four hundred kilometers from Itbayat island in Batanes.
Only last November, US Vice President Kamala Harris boarded a Philippine Coast Guard vessel in Palawan and told her audience about America’s values pertaining to the region, emphasizing “respect for sovereignty and international integrity, unimpeded lawful commerce, the peaceful resolution of disputes, and freedom of navigation.”
The most significant outcome of the Austin visit was the joint announcement that four additional sites have been chosen for the setting up of bases to be used by Filipino and American troops for training purposes under the Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that was crafted after the expiry of the military bases agreement between the two countries.
Currently, there are five agreed military sites under EDCA: Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro City, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Basa Air Base in Pampanga.
The specific location of the four additional sites has not been disclosed, as due notice will be given to the affected local government units (LGUs) after the sealing of diplomatic letters formalizing the agreement.
Over the past decade, concerns have been raised on the strength of the US’ commitment to support the Philippines, especially in the light of heightened activities by China in the South China Sea. Upon the initiative of then President Benigno S. Aquino III, the Philippines raised to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Netherlands, issues pertaining to China’s expansive outlook based on its nine-dash line theory. In 2016, the arbitral tribunal upheld the Philippines’ position on most of its submissions; eight governments called for the ruling to be respected. But China continues to maintain an active presence in the area through active coast guard patrols.
Covered in the Austin-Galvez talks were mutual concerns in the areas of humanitarian assistance, economic development, peace and security. Emphasizing the broader scope of US-PH relations, Secretary Austin manifested that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) will extend help to the communities affected by a recent severe earthquake that hit Davao de Oro.
In a statement released from Camp Aguinaldo following the dialogue between the two defense secretaries: “Both Galvez and Austin expressed they are looking forward to continuously working to develop the two countries’ joint defense capabilities.” Interoperability is the key concept. As the US is the main source of Philippine defense materiel, it is essential that the Filipino troops’ capability to deploy equipment be honed continuously. This is sought to be achieved by the joint annual Balikatan exercises.
Since the Obama administration, top US officials have used the phrase “ironclad commitment” to characterize the extent to which American obligations under its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines would be kept. The outcome of the Austin visit indicates an apparent determination to reaffirm such commitment.