Amid tensions in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines is working on expanding defense and security cooperation with other countries in the region, particularly Singapore and Vietnam, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo told a Senate inquiry yesterday.

He said this strategy of multilateral cooperation in security is why the Philippines entered into talks with Japan on enhancing defense cooperation.

'I see that is the approach we're taking now, multilateral, which is cooperation, not only in terms of it's a multi but even tripartite with a number of our partners. It's already been stated at the last visit of the President's visit to Japan,' Manalo said.

He said there is an opportunity to build up not just military cooperation, but also economic and other areas of cooperation to enhance security.

'That's being done with Australia. We're also very much in touch now with Australia,' said Manalo. 'And in terms of ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian) partners, we're also in touch with Singapore.'

He added that Vietnam is also being eyed for discussions on security cooperation.

'We will also embark on discussions with Vietnam and other countries in the region, all with the intention of trying to increase our security not only in terms of military and defense, but also through economic security,' the DFA secretary told senators.

EDCA to boost capacities

Manalo told the Senate that the implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States was meant to boost their 'collective capacities' in addressing 'shared security threats.'

He and Defense Senior Undersecretary Carlito Galvez Jr., officer-in-charge of the Department of National Defense (DND), defended the EDCA before the Senate foreign relations committee, chaired by Sen. Imee Marcos.

Manalo described the EDCA, which is meant to support combined exercises and interoperability of militaries of both countries through the establishment of mutually agreed logistics hubs in military camps, as a key pillar of the Philippine-US security alliance.

'The full implementation of the EDCA will make our alliance more resilient and will accelerate modernization of our joint of our military capabilities,' Manalo said.

The EDCA is intended to supplement the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), especially in developing the two countries' 'individual and collective capacities in addressing security threats.'

The committee held the hearing a month after the Philippine and US governments announced four new EDCA sites that news reports indicate are all located in northern Luzon.

Both sides had initially agreed to 21 locations, of which five have been put up while nine are in various stages of completion, Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Hechanova, Armed Forces deputy chief of staff for plans, told the panel.

Officials said the US government will put up facilities for the deployment and storage of defense equipment, supplies and material in the EDCA sites that would facilitate joint activities, such as training exercises and humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR).

'These new types of locations will allow more rapid response for humanitarian and climate related disasters in the Philippines as well as respond to other shared challenges,' Manalo said.

Why Northern Luzon

Marcos asked why the locations are all in Northern Luzon, which she said apparently belies the claim of officials of both sides that they could help protect the country's sovereignty, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

A more plausible reason, she said, is that the new EDCA sites could be intended by the US to be used as bases or staging ground in the event of a conflict in Taiwan, which China considers as a renegade province.

'What is the main consideration for choosing the locations? Is it really disaster assistance? Is it West Philippine Sea or something else?' Marcos asked Galvez, who replied that they could serve as 'contingency on the defense of the country, so that we can have some sort of collective defense.'

Galvez said the sites are still under negotiations and they are not necessarily all located in Northern Luzon.

Sen. Risa Hontiveros cited China's 'consistent provocations' and that Beijing's 'utter disrespect is an affront to our sovereign rights' in the West Philippine Sea.

She thanked the US, Japan, Australia, Canada and Germany for asking Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

'However, despite her belligerence, we have always believed in exhausting all political and diplomatic means available so we can assert our rights and stand our ground, while maintaining relative peace in the region,' Hontiveros said.

'This means we must not depend only on the help of our former colonizer, the US, but instead, exhaust all ways to have security arrangements with the wider international community that are more than willing to support our cause,' she said.

Cagayan Gov. Manuel Mamba, whose province is reportedly the location of one of the new EDCA sites, lamented there was no consultation with his constituents on the matter.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III cautioned officials against entering into agreements that end up having the Philippines caught between the US and China.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, however, said he fully supports the EDCA and enjoined his skeptical colleagues to visit the country's dilapidated installations and fishing communities in the West Philippine Sea that are subjected to harassment from Chinese coast guard and militia vessels.

Sen. Francis Tolentino, vice chairman of the panel, said there must be a fusion of effort and goals of the DFA and the DND, 'a convergence of military, economic, diplomatic and geopolitical needs.'

Sen. Ronald dela Rosa said Washington should set the record straight on its intention for EDCA, adding the government should not allow the Philippines to be used by the US for its own interests in the region.

'America should clarify that they are not here to use the Philippines in advancing their own interest, particularly in making the country a launchpad in the event China invaded Taiwan,' Dela Rosa, who was guest at yesterday's Kapihan sa Manila Bay forum, said.


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