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Filipino lawmakers back greater US access under defense pact


By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

PHILIPPINE congressmen on Monday welcomed the Marcos government’s decision to give the United States access to four more military bases, saying it would help deter China’s aggression in the South China Sea.

The decision to expand the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in 2014, is in line with the Philippines’ national interest, Cagayan de Oro Rep. Rufus B. Rodriguez said in a statement.

“[It will] deter further aggression from China in the West Philippine Sea and possible Chinese seizure of islets that belong to us under International law,” he said, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the Southeast Asian nation’s exclusive economic zone.

Mr. Rodriguez sought further expansion of the military pact to cover “more sites along our western seaboard, where Chinese aggression and harassment of our fishermen have been taking place.”

Last week, the Philippine government increased US access to nine of its military bases. The government also said projects at five existing EDCA sites were almost finished.

Under the 2014 pact, Philippine military bases may be used for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and building facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing.

The Philippines and US have yet to disclose the location of the new EDCA sites. Last year, a former Philippine military chief said Washington had sought access to bases on the northern land mass of Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, and on the island of Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

The five accessible EDCA sites are the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu and Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City. The US has allotted more than $82 million for these sites.

“I support the Philippine Air Force base at the former Lumbia airport in our city. I expect the US government to pour in more funds to develop and fully capacitate the air base,” Mr. Rodriguez said.

The US had a naval base in Subic, Olongapo until 1991, when the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the lease. The decision led to the removal of an American air base in Clark, Pampanga. The two sites, which are now economic hubs, are located north of Manila, the capital.

Mr. Rodriguez said the Subic and Clark free ports should be part of EDCA training-exercises and humanitarian activities.

APOLOGY“The presence of the US in the former US Navy base in Subic could deter Chinese Coast Guard and military vessels from driving away our fishermen from their traditional fishing grounds in Scarborough or Panatag Shoal, or Bajo de Masinloc, which is near Zambales and Pangasinan.”

Pagasa Island off Palawan should also be included in EDCA to existing facilities there, the lawmaker said. “We have an airstrip there. The Department of National Defense is also building a small port. We could ask our US counterparts to improve those facilities.”

EDCA was built on a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and 1999 visiting forces agreement between the Philippines and US.

The latest development is seen as an important effort on the part of Washington to keep China at bay in the South China Sea, over which Beijing has sweeping claims, and deter any moves by China against self-ruled Taiwan, which is just 390 kilometers away from northern Philippines.

Surigao del Sur Rep. Johnny T. Pimentel said the EDCA could help the Philippines boost disaster response.

“We are the most disaster-prone country in the world,” he said in a statement. “There’s no question American troops and their equipment can help us in a big way in critical life-saving disaster relief and recovery operations.”

Mr. Pimentel, who served as chairman of the House of Representatives strategic intelligence committee, said he is also counting on EDCA’s full performance “to boost the ability of Filipino and American military forces to effectively combine operations and act together when needed.”

“We must stress that our readiness to put our Mutual Defense Treaty into action, when needed, is our best deterrence to potential foreign acts of aggression in the West Philippine Sea.”

Supporters of EDCA also said the military pact could help the Philippines pursue oil and gas exploration in its territories being claimed by China.

Mr. Rodriguez said expanded defense cooperation in Mindanao should prompt the Marcos administration to allow oil and gas exploration at Reed Bank, which the Philippines calls Recto.

The area reportedly holds more oil and gas reserves than the Malampaya natural gas field, which is also in Palawan.

Opposition congressmen last week said Congress should oversee US access to Philippine military bases under the enhanced defense pact to avoid abuse.

Lawmakers from the Makabayan bloc on Monday — two days after the 124th commemoration of the Philippine-American war — filed a resolution asking the US government to issue an apology for the “atrocities committed by its military forces against the Filipino people” during the war.

“It has been 124 years since the start of the Philippine-American War where the American military targeted whole populations throughout the archipelago, displacing whole communities and interning them in concentration camps; employing scorched earth tactics that destroyed homes, crops, food stores, livestock and water supplies,” Party-list Rep. France L. Castro said in a statement.

She said the Philippine-American War stands as one of the bloodiest chapters in Philippine history, killing at least 34,000 Filipino soldiers and at least 200,000 civilians.

“The US is adding insult to injury with these new additional sites for EDCA and the Marcos administration is just bowing to it.”

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