The Chinese view that the Philippines’ and the United States’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement sites are offensive in nature is false. The Philippines and China should take a wider perspective and work on the totality of their bilateral relationship.
Early in April 2023, the Philippines and the United States announced the addition of four new sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Immediately, the response from Beijing was swift. On 6 April, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning shared that the development as “really uncalled-for” and, on 12 April, spokesperson Wang Wenbin expressed disapproval of the development. Days after, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian echoed the same sentiment. This drew flak in the Philippines.
Improvements in EDCA began as early as March 2023. A month prior, Manila and Washington agreed to accelerate the implementation of EDCA. Some US$82 million was allotted to upgrade the five existing sites under EDCA. Even then, this development elicited no reactionary responses from Beijing. Why now?
Signed in 2014, EDCA is a ten-year deal that allows the U.S. to have a strengthened presence in the Philippines. EDCA increases the U.S.’ rotational military presence, specifically for joint training and exercises and allows the two allies to conduct joint operations in responding to natural and humanitarian crises.
The additional EDCA sites are not to be construed as U.S. bases. EDCA is not a foreign basing agreement. It is a logistical agreement; more accurately, a pre-positioning agreement while ensuring Manila retains sovereignty and control over them. In the years that followed the signing, however, EDCA was criticised for not having achieved its goals sooner. There were delays in its implementation, mainly due to the Duterte administration’s attempts to downplay the Philippines’ relationship with the US.
The Philippines is not mobilising any operations toward Beijing or Taipei, other than the swift implementation of EDCA sites which has been core to U.S.-Philippine strategic relations.
Chinese pundits are quick to dismiss EDCA as detrimental to China and its relationship with the Philippines. For instance, reactions cite how this development is a significant departure from President Marcos Jr’s friendly overtures with China. Observers are quick to forget that Marcos’ initially friendly overtures were spurned by Beijing. The president’s high-level meeting with Xi Jinping in January this year belied the Chinese Coast Guard’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. In fact, the CCG’s actions in what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea (WPS) have intensified. The coordinated swarming of fishing vessels in Whitsun Reef in March 2021, the water cannoning of Philippine non-military boats in November 2021, and the more recent laser-pointing incident in February 2023 were all documented in plain view.
A more geopolitical angle argues that Manila had “‘inserted itself in the heat of Sino-U.S. strategic competition”. This is a false interpretation of historical antecedents. The Philippines has long been a U.S. treaty ally, way before such a strategic competition materialised between Washington and Beijing. China entered Manila’s orbit of concern on its own accord. The Philippines has expressed that it does not want to be in the middle of any conflict and hopes that these unwarranted advances would not affect bilateral relations.
Chinese observers cite fears that the EDCA would be offensively used in a potential military clash over the Taiwan Strait. These perceptions are not accurate. EDCA is not a military basing agreement, and the concerned sites will not be used as a base, that is, launchpads for Taiwan contingencies. President Marcos Jr. has already confirmed this. One must not be careless in the use and interpretation of security agreements between Manila and Washington.
The enhancement and improvements made to EDCA have been long-time in the making. Despite being a treaty ally, responding to a crisis in the cross-straits is not monolithic and will not be automatic, contrary to Chinese pundits’ fears. There is a process for determining the facts of the issue. In addition, no Taiwan contingency has been raised, discussed, or is being planned in any of the U.S.-Philippine joint dialogues, only that “maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” is reaffirmed as an “indispensable element of global security and prosperity”. The Philippines is not mobilising any operations toward Beijing or Taipei, other than the swift implementation of EDCA sites which has been core to U.S.-Philippine strategic relations.
EDCA is mainly defensive and strategic and will not be used as launchpads for offensive attacks. More importantly, the Philippine Constitution prohibits the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy. Beijing can be assured that the EDCA sites will not be used to proactively launch offensive attacks against China nor used to come to the defence of Taiwan.
Inevitably, China will want to see a swift reiteration of the “One China policy”. The Philippines has consistently upheld its past communiques with Beijing and also upholds the “One China policy” to the letter. There is no change in Philippine policy towards Beijing and Taipei. More recently, the National Security Council issued a press release affirming the “One China policy”.
Finally, Chinese concerns point to the Philippines’ strategic move with the U.S. as affecting other regional states and that this puts Manila “in an awkward position”. This is false. As the Philippines find itself in the crossfire of the U.S.-China strategic competition it only practices hedging or balancing. To force the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries to choose between the U.S. or China is an incorrect mindset. Manila has partnered with both Beijing and Washington on important bilateral undertakings. However, Manila places a premium over its exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and Beijing has not done anything substantial to reduce Manila’s concerns. Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo stated that repeated infringements on Philippine sovereignty and international law necessitated the strategic EDCA move. This is meant to balance China; not to plan, nor advocate for an attack on Beijing or its parts thereof.
Despite China’s erratic behavior, Manila has consistently pushed for diplomatic avenues with its every action within the parameters of international law. Philippine Government channels have all been consistent in reaching out to accommodate the Chinese Embassy despite China’s assertive activities in the WPS. The Philippines has adopted new strategies to bring illegal Chinese activities into the light by continuing the issuance of note verbales and by physically documenting illegal Chinese behaviour at sea. China however responds with provocative activities at sea coupled with its diplomacy by habitual gaslighting.
Instead of lambasting EDCA, it would do Philippines-China relations some good to focus on one another, rather than on focusing on third parties. Beijing has proudly boasted that the WPS conflict is not the totality of Philippines-China bilateral relations. Frankly, the same should be said of China’s qualms about EDCA.
Julio S. Amador III is Interim President of the Foundation for the National Interest and Founder and Trustee of the non-profit FACTS Asia.
Deryk Baladjay is Research Manager of Amador Research Services. He also serves as faculty member at the International Studies Department of the De La Salle University-Manila.