EDCA Expansion: Implications For US-Philippines-China Triangle – Analysis

On 3 April, the Philippines officially announced the locations of the four additional sites under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States (US). Accordingly, three of the four newly chosen bases will be positioned in the Philippines’ northern Luzon provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, while the fourth base will be located at the western tip of the country in the province of Palawan. Although the expansion of EDCA sites to a total of nine locations indicates a crucial breakthrough for the alliance, questions remain about this decision’s potential implications for Philippine foreign policy and Southeast Asian security.

Maximising the utility of the alliance

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. emphasised how his administration will be marked by a more stringent focus on territorial defence, military modernisation, and maritime security at a time when China continues to increase its assertiveness and belligerence in the West Philippine Sea at the expense of Manila’s sovereignty and sovereign rights. Against this backdrop, Marcos endeavoured to enhance the role of the alliance with the US.

Since his inauguration as the Philippine president, Manila and Washington have been engaging regularly in high-level meetings. Marcos and US President Joe Biden have already met twice in New York and Phnom Penh. Moreover, senior US officials including Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin have also visited Manila. In addition, an official state visit by Marcos to the US this year is currently being planned. Furthermore, to support Marcos’s intent to improve the country’s maritime security capabilities, Washington donated maritime tactical gear and other critical equipment worth US$ 196,000 to the Philippine Coast Guard in August 2022 and provided Manila US$ 100 million in foreign military financing in October 2022.

The overt desire of Marcos to reinvigorate the treaty alliance presents a stark contrast to his predecessor former President Rodrigo Duterte’s wariness towards the US. Such developments have also encouraged Washington to explore more areas of strategic cooperation with Manila. In fact, the April 2023 iteration of the annual Balikatanexercise with the US will not only be the largest version of the bilateral military exercise but will also include novel boat-sinking drills between the Filipino and American troops. This provides a practical dimension to the alliance at a time of rising traditional and non-traditional security threats. Thus, the expansion of EDCA sites also clearly reflects Manila’s renewed interest in forging stronger security ties with Washington.

Under the Marcos administration, the Philippines has also demonstrated its willingness to bolster its coordination with the US hub and spokes system in the Indo-Pacific. During his visit to Japan in February 2023, Marcos and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida signed a bilateral defence agreement that will serve as an opportunity for Japan to increase its strategic presence and collaboration with the Philippines. In the same month, Australian Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Richard Marles also visited the Philippines and stressed that Manila and Canberra were also looking at ways to spearhead joint naval patrols in the South China Sea.

For Manila, therefore, the intended purpose of the EDCA expansion centres on improving the Philippines’ deterrence and territorial defence against an increasingly assertive China and reaping the benefits of a strengthening alliance with the US. However, the competitive and uncertain nature of international politics creates difficulties in assessing the short-term and long-term implications of particular foreign policy decisions vis-à-vis other neighbouring powers.

The China factor and concerns from within

On 4 April, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning described the EDCA expansion as a zero-sum endeavour by the US and advised regional countries to be more aware and responsible in making decisions that may result in more competition than cooperation in the region. While such responses from Beijing are expected, the timing and nature of these statements point to a potentially more tense Philippines-China relationship in the West Philippine Sea just three months after Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to peacefully manage the maritime dispute.

Since February, China has engaged in a series of provocative acts against the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea. With an increasing US presence in the region, it is likely that China will continue to militarise and project more power in the disputed maritime territory. Over the years, China has significantly improved its Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities in the East and South China Seas at the expense of US freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS). On 23 March, the Chinese military claimed that it had driven away a US destroyer conducting FONOPS in the South China Sea. While this claim was denied by the US Navy, such incidents reflect the intensifying nature of the US-China power competition.

Within the Philippines’ domestic political landscape, several prominent figures have also voiced their concerns regarding the potential negative impacts of the decision to expand the scope of the EDCA. In his interview in the SMNI programme, Duterte expressed his concerns about how an expanded EDCA may be used to benefit US interests rather than the Philippines’. In a similar vein, Senate foreign relations committee chairperson Imee Marcos, on 1 March, also stressed the negative security implications of the decision of the Philippine government to increase the number of sites of the EDCA. Senator Marcos noted that a majority of the sites chosen will be in northern Luzon, which is quite close to Taiwan.

In fact, the Philippines’ northern island of Itbayat is only approximately 149 kilometres from Taiwan. The senator then asked whether the expansion of EDCA will be more geared towards enhancing the Philippine territorial defence in the West Philippine Sea or enhancing the US position at a time of a shooting war with China over Taiwan. Consequently, such developments may damage Manila’s relations with Beijing further and draw the former deeper into a war over Taiwan.

Marcos and the US-China balance

At the beginning of his presidency, Marcos sought to forge a strategic balance between its treaty ally and its largest immediate neighbour. However, he has made it unequivocally clear that his administration will prioritise Philippine sovereignty, territorial integrity, and sovereign rights. In the context of this goal, it was inevitable for Manila to spearhead a more reinvigorated shift towards strengthening the country’s maritime security capabilities and improving its defence network in the region. It is in this context that the role of the US alliance continues to be emphasised. Marcos has also indicated his disappointment with Beijing’s inability to follow through with the agreement forged between both leaders in January when he summoned the Chinese ambassador amidst the series of Chinese provocations in the West Philippine Sea.

Recognising the growing challenges brought by a rising China, Marcos has sought to leverage its traditional strategic ties to complement his vision for a more secure Philippines. It is against this backdrop that the decision to expand the EDCA can be understood. However, Marcos has simultaneously highlighted how a lasting solution to the maritime dispute can only be achieved through diplomatic negotiations. Hence, Manila seeks to continuously manage and stabilise ties with Beijing by keeping diplomatic channels open and expanding economic cooperation.

In this light, it was reported on 30 March that both countries have decided to resume discussions on possible joint oil and gas ventures in the West Philippine Sea, though this does not mean that the Philippines should not pursue its legitimate security interests at a time when the region’s security architecture continues to witness great turbulence. It can, thus, be expected that Philippine foreign policy will face more arduous challenges given the unfolding implications of the contemporary alterations to the region’s strategic equations.