January 22, 2016
By Perry Diaz
Twenty-four years after the Philippine Senate rejected the extension of the American bases, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). EDCA is an “executive agreement” between the U.S. and the Philippines that would allow the American military to once again set foot on Philippine soil. It didn’t take long for the Philippines to act; she immediately offered eight strategic locations throughout the country where the U.S. could position equipment and personnel on a rotational basis.
It’s interesting to note that prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling, every time American warships docked at the Subic port (formerly Subic Naval Base), they were met by protesting leftist groups displaying anti-American signs. This time around, when the USS Topeka, a nuclear attack submarine, docked at Subic a few hours before the high court decision was announced, it was welcomed by a marching band composed of local students.
Indeed, times have changed since the Philippine Senate, by a narrow 12-11 vote, decided not to renew the U.S. bases agreement in 1991. A year later, after then President Cory Aquino’s administration tried vainly to work out an extension, the U.S. flag was lowered in Subic for the last time. Since then, leftist and nationalist groups have vigilantly opposed any presence of American forces on Philippine soil. It was a period when the nationalists proudly declared the Philippines as “truly independent.” However, it was also a dark period when China started grabbing Philippine territories including the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Scarborough Shoal, and six other islands where she built artificial islands that could be used for military purposes. China has been trying to expel a contingent of Philippine Marines guarding the Ayungin Shoal in a grounded and rusty naval vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre.
But it was when China started building the artificial islands that the nationalist legislators began to worry. They turned to the U.S. for help but Uncle Sam stayed out of the disputed islands, claiming neutrality. Some of them even tried to invoke the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which makes one wonder: Did they expect the Americans to come to the aid of the Philippines after they were booted out of the country? And these “patriotic” legislators know that with a navy without warships and an air force without warplanes, the country is helplessly -- and hopelessly -- at the mercy of China.
It did not then come as a surprise when President Benigno Aquino III opened the doors for the U.S. to station troops and equipment on a rotational basis. And that’s when EDCA came to fruition. But it wasn’t easy. As soon as the EDCA was signed in April 2014, several leftist and nationalist personalities petitioned the Supreme Court to declare EDCA unconstitutional. Among them were former Senators Rene Saguisag and Wigberto Tañada who were among the “Magnificent 12” -- as their supporters called them – who voted to kick the U.S. bases out of the Philippines 24 years ago. Today, these 12 senators are now referred to as the “Dirty Dozen.” Indeed, times are changing.
Supreme Court ruling
When the Supreme Court circulated the draft of the ponencia penned by Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno last November, the Senate immediately passed Resolution 1414 introduced by Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, which says that any treaty should be concurred in by the Senate otherwise it becomes “invalid and ineffective.” However, the U.S. and Philippine governments have always insisted that EDCA is an executive agreement, not a treaty.
Fourteen senators voted to adopt the resolution. Only Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV voted against it while Senate President Franklin Drilon and Senate Minority Leader Juan Ponce Enrile abstained. It’s ironic that Enrile, who was one of the “Magnificent 12,” had abstained this time around, which makes one wonder: Did he finally realize the folly of his action in 1991? Indeed, had he voted for retention of the U.S. bases then – a notion that might have swirled in his mind today -- China would have stayed out of the Spratly Islands.
Nevertheless, in spite of the “invalid and ineffective” language of Resolution 1414, the Supreme Court went ahead and voted 10-4 on Sereno’s ponencia. Justices Estela Perlas-Bernabe, Arturo Brion, Teresita Leonardo-De Castro and Marvic Leonen dissented while Justice Francis Jardeleza inhibited.
In his concurring opinion to the court’s ruling, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said that EDCA’s provisions that allow the prepositioning of U.S. war materiel and equipment in Philippine military bases would “give teeth” to the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). “With the EDCA, China will think twice before attacking Philippine military resupply ships to Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys. With the EDCA, the Philippines will have a fighting chance to hold on to Philippine-occupied islands in the Spratlys,” he said.
With EDCA in place, the Philippines can now play an important role in preventing Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region that spans more than 12,000 miles across the globe – from the coast of East Africa to the shores of California. The Philippines, which was the weakest link in the First Island Chain that forms the first line of defense against Chinese intrusion into the Pacific Ocean, is now going to be a fortified 1,100-mile “retaining wall” against China’s “nine-dash line” -- which U.S. Admiral Harry Harris calls the “Berlin Wall of the Sea” -- that runs parallel to the Philippines’ 12-mile territorial boundary and the First Island Chain. And at both ends of that retaining wall are the Bashi Channel in the Batanes Islands in the north and the Tawi-Tawi Strait in the Sulu archipelago in the south. It’s no surprise then that the U.S. has requested access to Batanes Island and the Laoag Airport in Ilocos Norte where movements in the Bashi Channel could be monitored, and blocked if a conflict with China occurs.
Whoever controls the Bashi Channel, Tawi-Tawi Strait, and the Miyako Channel – a major choke point that connects the East China Sea to the Pacific Ocean – would control the First Island Chain; thus, containing China to the confines of the South and East China Seas.
It’s also been reported in the news that the existing Philippine naval facility at Oyster Bay, Palawan is being developed into a “mini Subic.” Oyster Bay, which is only 100 miles from the Spratly Islands, is the Philippine Navy’s sole base facing the South China Sea and the staging point to the Kalayaan Islands that includes the populated Pag-Asa Island.
In the previous week, three important events happened that gave the U.S. a geopolitical victory over China in Asia-Pacific, to wit: (1) The resolution of the “comfort women” issue between Japan and South Korea; (2) The election of pro-independence Tsai Ing-wen as Taiwan’s next president; and (3) The Philippine Supreme Court’s ruling on the constitutionality of EDCA.
With America’s military alliances with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Australia, and Singapore secured, President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” strategy is finally paying off, which solidified the position of the U.S. as a Pacific power. And with EDSA in place, a new strategic partnership between the U.S. and the Philippines is created; thus, providing a safety net for the Philippines to protect her sovereignty and territorial integrity.