28 April 2014

US eyes return to Subic

MANILA - The United States is eyeing its former military base in Subic Bay, Philippines as one of the military facilities that will be covered by its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines (EDCA).

US National Security Council Senior Director for Asian affairs Evan Medeiros was asked about this in a late briefing in Malaysia, where US President Barack Obama is on the 3rd leg of his 2014 Spring Asia Tour. “There are a variety of facilities on the table. Subic Bay could be one of them."

Medeiros stressed that it’s not a basing agreement.

“This is not a sort of return to bases, so to speak. But rather what it does is it’s a framework that will allow us to train and to exercise with the armed forces of the Philippines on a range of missions, including humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, maritime security; countering transnational crime, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, for example.”

The EDCA will be signed by US Ambassador Philip Goldberg and Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin hours before Obama arrives in Manila from Kuala Lumpur.

US Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes confirmed this in a briefing in Malaysia late Sunday night.

“We will be completing and signing with the Philippines a very important agreement that will allow the United States access to basing in the Philippines in a way that will build out our defense and security cooperation," Rhodes said.

Medeiros called the agreement the most significant. The Philippines-US bases treaty expired in the 90s after a 50-year lifespan.“This is the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades. What the agreement is, is that it’s a framework that facilitates enhanced security cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines that will allow us enhanced rotational presence at facilities in the Philippines.”

However, Medeiros said there are still details that will be threshed out. "The agreement itself has been under negotiation for about eight months. We’ve had eight rounds of negotiation, but it’s part of a longer conversation that the U.S. military has been having with its Philippine counterparts over the last few years as they have started to shift from an internal security-focused mission to an external security-focused mission.”

Medeiros added, “the agreement itself is just a framework. It creates a legal and policy infrastructure. It’s sort of like the skeletal and the muscular infrastructure that over time, as we talk with the Philippines about what their needs are and what missions they want to work with us on, we will then work through what the specific nature of the training and the exercising will be.”

Rhodes said EDCA is “a flexible agreement that will allow us to position assets as necessary to provide that training and to do that type of joint effort with the Philippines.”

Medeiros confirmed the agreement will be valid for 10 years. “It’s 10-year with a provision for renewing.”

Rhodes also explained that the facilities covered by the agreement are fundamentally Filipino facilities. “So clearly they will be present and will have access to their bases.”

Rhodes said the EDCA is similar to the increased rotational presence agreement that has allowed the US to have some troops in Darwin, Australia.


Rhodes attributes part of the impetus for the agreement to disaster response. Last year, central Philippines was battered by super typhoon Yolanda. "Because it was the United States that was able with our capabilities to reach affected areas much more effectively than any other country could. And this type of agreement that could allow, for instance, the U.S. air and naval assets to rotate through Filipino facilities would contribute to the ability to have a very nimble and effective response to a disaster like a typhoon, which tragically is not a non-common occurrence in this region generally that you have those types of natural disasters. It also will help us develop the Filipino capacity to respond in those types of disasters.”

Medeiros also stressed the EDCA has nothing to do with China, whose maritime dispute with the Philippines has exacerbated tensions in the South China Sea.

“They’re interested in stepping up our military-to-military engagement. There have been a variety of instances, as Ben pointed out, like Typhoon Yolanda, where it became clear that an enhanced rotational presence, a legal and policy framework for the U.S. military to work with their Philippine counterparts was something that was needed by the Philippine government.”

Rhodes added, “this isn’t an agreement designed at resolving maritime disputes with any particular maritime dispute as a focal point of why we did this. We have made very clear that we believe that there should be a cooperative approach to addressing maritime disputes consistent with international law, that there should be an avoidance of an escalation of tensions. At the same time, we’ve made clear we have an interest, a national interest, in for instance the free flow of commerce and open sea lanes.”

Rhodes emphasized the US has also increased military-to-military exchanges with China, in part to have greater transparency and in part to avoid any unnecessary and inadvertent escalation.

“And so that’s an important part of how we approach these issues, that we have that type of dialogue and exchange with China. The fact of these negotiations has been public and known in the region, so it’s certainly something that the Chinese have been aware of," he said.

Medeiros added, “we want a constructive relationship with China. We have made a serious effort at improving our military-to-military ties....we want all the countries in the region to have a constructive relationship with China, and we welcome them working with the Chinese on shared security and economic challenges. “

Medeiros, however, reiterated the US position against “ the use of intimidation, coercion or aggression by any state -- any state -- to advance their maritime territorial claims. And to the extent that our work with our alliance partners and our security partners helps them become more capable and not being vulnerable to intimidation, coercion or aggression, we think that’s a good thing. And that’s one of the reasons why we seek to modernize our alliances and our security partnerships when we come here in the region.”

Medeiros pointed out that the Philippines has found an ally in support of its chosen strategy of arbitration in resolving its differences with china.

“As you know, Malaysia is a claimant. And very significantly in the joint statement, for the first time, they actually came out in support of the principle of international arbitration, which has been a subject of some diplomatic wrangling in recent months as the Philippines has sought to pursue an arbitration case regarding its disputes with China." (RG Cruz, ABS-CBN News)