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A Decade On: EDCA and the Philippines–US Alliance

Since its signing in 2014, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement has faced some delays in its implementation. However, with Beijing showing no signs of curtailing its aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea, recent years have seen an uptick in security cooperation between Manila and Washington.

An evolving alliance: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and US President Joe Biden with their spouses at the White House in May 2023

April 2024 has thus far been marked by two major developments in the Philippines’ security relations with the US and other countries. First, the Maritime Cooperative Activity was conducted in the South China Sea (SCS) on 7 April between Australia, Japan, the Philippines and the US to promote ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’. Second, the first Japan–Philippines–US trilateral summit was held on 11 April to advance their shared vision of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’.

Apart from the conduct of the annual Balikatan military exercises, this month is important for Manila and Washington because of another milestone in their alliance: the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Signed on 28 April 2014 during the administration of the late Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, EDCA was designed to boost security cooperation between the two countries by providing for the increased rotational presence of US troops in ‘agreed locations’ in the Philippines.

Formal negotiations for EDCA commenced in 2013, the same year Manila filed an arbitration case against China over the SCS maritime dispute. While the Philippines won the case, security challenges in the SCS have intensified. Guided by its strategic intent to alter the balance of power in its favour, China has been much more aggressive in advancing its expansive maritime and territorial claims in the SCS. Short of an armed attack, Beijing has been relentless in harassing Philippine maritime vessels through the use of water cannonslasers and maritime militia, among other tools. Beyond the SCS, China is likewise much more assertive in its position in its relations with Taiwan.

In the 10 years since the agreement’s signing, EDCA has been presented with both challenges and opportunities. Indeed, just days after EDCA was signed, the agreement’s legality was challenged before the Philippines’ supreme court. Prominent Philippine legislators, including the late Miriam Defensor Santiago, then-chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, also expressed opposition to EDCA. In January 2016, after nearly two years, the supreme court ruled that EDCA was constitutional. Two months later, Manila and Washington announced the five initial ‘agreed locations’ under EDCA: Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa, Palawan; Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao; Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.

However, the biggest challenge to EDCA did not come from congress or the judiciary but from the Philippine presidential palace. In June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte, a populist firebrand, succeeded Aquino. Determined to upend the country’s foreign relations, Duterte announced his intent to ‘separate’ Manila from Washington, and declared his desire to scrap EDCA. The largest threat to EDCA’s future came in 2020 when the Duterte administration initiated the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). Indeed, EDCA is an executive agreement designed to implement the VFA. Subsequently, the Duterte administration suspended, and later scrapped, its decision to terminate the VFA. While EDCA itself was not terminated, its implementation languished under Duterte.

Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture in advancing its claims in the South China Sea has served as a powerful impetus in revitalising the Philippines–US alliance in the past couple of years

The election of incumbent Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr in 2022 presented an opportunity to strengthen the alliance after the uncertainty of the Duterte years. In February 2023, just months into the Marcos Jr administration, Manila and Washington announced ‘their plans to accelerate the full implementation’ of EDCA. The allies later identified four new EDCA sites: Naval Base Camilo Osias in Santa Ana, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; Balabac Island in Palawan; and Lal-lo Airport in Cagayan. In the same year, Washington unveiled additional funding on top of the $82 million previously announced. The allies also approved 63 additional projects to be constructed at EDCA sites, and they are eyeing more potential locations for the future.

During the visit of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to Manila in March 2024, Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Enrique Manalo described the alliance to be in ‘hyperdrive’. This is certainly the case in terms of security cooperation, including initiatives related to EDCA. The policy and strategy documents of both countries clearly articulate a shared concern over China’s aggressive behaviour and a desire to advance a rules-based international order.

EDCA’s provisions state that the deal shall have ‘an initial term of ten years, and thereafter, it shall continue in force automatically’. While the language of the agreement is clear that it will continue unless terminated by either party, the current developments in Philippines–US relations must not be taken to mean that it will continue on a similar trajectory in the coming years. Indeed, the past decade suggests that the future of EDCA is by no means a foregone conclusion. Three major factors could help shape the prospects of EDCA and the overall Philippines–US alliance.

The first consideration is China’s coercive behaviour in the SCS and its influence operations within the Philippines. Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture in advancing its expansive nine-dash line claim in the SCS has served as a powerful impetus in revitalising the Philippines–US alliance in the past couple of years. Confrontations in the SCS provide opportunities for Washington to reassure Manila of its commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty, as demonstrated in the 23 March 2024 water canon incident which led to the injury of multiple Philippine servicemembers.

Beyond maritime coercive actions, China also appears to be trying to shape Manila’s foreign relations within the Philippines through political influence operations. When it was announced that Cagayan would host an EDCA site, the province’s governor opposed the move while seeking closer ties with Beijing. It should be noted that Cagayan benefited from Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects such as the Chico River Pump Irrigation project, as well as a proposed ‘smart city’ project on the province’s Fuga Island, which is near Taiwan. These BRI projects were initiated during the Duterte administration. There have been concerns about Chinese espionage and the military dual-use and control of critical infrastructure – similar to projects under the BRI. Moreover, it has been reported that China has been purchasing real estate in strategic areas near the SCS, such as in Zambales and Palawan. China also appears to be conducting influence operations in areas such as offshore gaming, the national power grid and telecommunications, as well as by conducting disinformation campaigns.

In recent years, public opinion polls in the Philippines have consistently indicated high levels of trust in the US

The second factor concerns domestic political developments within the Philippines and the US. The last decade has seen how domestic political transitions can swing Manila’s foreign policy pendulum. As noted earlier, the Marcos Jr administration has moved to expand EDCA, which was not fully implemented under Duterte. However, even as the Marcos Jr government forges a closer military alliance with Washington, there is significant opposition even from within the president’s coalition. Imee Marcos, the president’s sister and current chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, has been critical of EDCA’s expansion, and at one point even called for the agreement’s termination. Since leaving office, former President Duterte – who is the father of Marcos Jr’s own vice president, has also publicly criticised EDCA and the overall foreign policy of his successor. Admitting that he regularly meets with the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, the former president also made a surprise visit to China in 2023 and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

At the time of writing, the US is about to undergo another political transition. The 2024 presidential election is poised to be an electoral rematch between US President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump. While a bipartisan consensus in favour of a stronger stance against China has been forged since the Trump administration, a degree of uncertainty over US foreign policy can be expected should Trump win another term. Indeed, a number of former key officials and moderate elements of the Republican party who served in the Trump administration have distanced themselves from the former president, and would likely not serve should he win again in November 2024.

Third, there are the sentiments of the foreign and security policy community and the general public in the Philippines. Historically, there has been an anti-US element to Filipino nationalism. However, in recent years, public opinion polls in the Philippines have consistently indicated high levels of trust in the US. With its aggressive actions against the Philippine military, law enforcement personnel and civilians in the SCS, 

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Original article link: https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/decade-edca-and-philippines-us-alliance

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