By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporters

PRESIDENT Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. should seek bigger compensation from the United States for the risks that increased access to Philippine military bases under their Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) entails, according to a security expert.

“Perhaps Washington can provide and marshal investments from allies and partners such as Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe to compensate Philippine provinces hosting EDCA and offset possible losses from Chinese investments,” said Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation.

He said China is expected to keenly observe rapid developments in the Philippine-US  alliance “with a great sense of vigilance.”

“EDCA’s implementation and expansion, joint patrols in the South China Sea and the Philippine-US-Japan partnership will be followed closely,” Mr. Pitlo said. “China is likely to oppose the deployment of US troops and more so, of capabilities that can put targets on the mainland, across the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea within range.”

Mr. Pitlo noted that because China claims self-ruled Taiwan, it is expected to react more strongly in light of the EDCA expansion compared with what it did against South Korea in 2017, when Seoul allowed US missiles on its soil to deter North Korea.

The possibility of the Philippines getting dragged into the China-Taiwan conflict due to EDCA expansion is a “serious risk that Manila has to bear in mind.”

While it might not alleviate the risk, a bigger reward from the US could lighten the opposition to EDCA especially from frontline provinces, the analyst said, citing concerns of some local officials who fear that the EDCA expansion might drive away Chinese investments.

He said other countries where the US is trying to renew military access like the central Pacific island states of Palau, Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia are “negotiating hard.”

He cited the case of Marshall Islands, which hosts the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site at the US Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll and is rumored to get about $4 billion for the 20-year extension of its Compact of Free Association Agreement with the US.

“So far, what is being reported on EDCA is an $82-million outlay for the existing five original locations, a drop in the bucket compared with what tiny Pacific atoll nations will be getting,” Mr. Pitlo said.

“Of course, this is not an apple-to-apple comparison,” he said. “But the point here is whether the rewards we are getting are commensurate with the risks and if there is even an attempt to offer such reasonable rewards in the first place.”

The president’s decision to boost American access to Philippine military bases shows he is trying to counter China’s increasing assertiveness in the South China Sea by projecting strength, said Raymond Powell, a fellow at the Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

Mr. Marcos seems to have realized that attempts to appease Beijing under his predecessor did not serve the Philippines’ national security interests “because China read this policy as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to consolidate its position in the West Philippine Sea,” he said in an e-mail.

The president might think that his “best leverage with China lies in projecting strength and that the quickest way to show strength is to have a vibrant network of capable partners and allies,” the security analyst said in an e-mail.

The Philippines has given the US access to four more military bases under their 2014 EDCA. None of the five existing EDCA sites are located in northern Luzon, “which is actually surprising given the looming security concerns across the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Powell said.

The Philippines and US have yet to disclose the locations of the four EDCA sites but a former military official said last year Washington had sought access to bases in northern 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.

“If in the expansion President Marcos were to deny his sole treaty ally access to the north for fear of angering Beijing, what message would that send?” Mr. Powell asked. “It would signify frailty in the alliance and a concession to China’s pressure tactics. It would once again project weakness.”

In February, the US Defense department said the expansion would allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines and respond to other shared challenges.

On Sunday, China hit the planned EDCA expansion, saying it serves Washington’s geopolitical interests.

“If the new sites are located in the northern Philippine provinces of Cagayan and Isabela, which are close to Taiwan, does the US really intend to help the Philippines in disaster relief with these EDCA sites?” the Chinese Embassy in Manila said in a statement. “And is it really in the national interest of the Philippines to get dragged by the US to interfere in the Taiwan question?”

Emerson De Yi-Zhou, a research assistant at the Center of Foreign Policy Studies of the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, said China’s fierce response to the latest development in the US-Philippines security partnership is “the result of the security dilemma between the US and China.” 

“China now views as aggressive any actions by the US, which strengthen ties with its hub-and-spoke system in Asia,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “I don’t believe China will do anything to punish the Philippines, because diplomacy tells us verbal expressions do not equate to actual actions.”

Mr. Zhou said the Marcos government would probably hedge its foreign policy strategy by boosting security ties with the US while keeping economic relations with China for two main reasons: “To do its best for the Philippines’ economic prosperity in the post-coronavirus era and maximize the country’s security interests in the South China Sea dispute.”

Mr. Powell said while the Philippines values its economic relationship with China and is unlikely to be provocative, its recent actions show that it will not be silent amid China’s aggression.

The Philippine Coast Guard has intensified its strategy of publicizing aggressive actions by China in the South China Sea.

“The Philippines’ recent actions — from fortifying partnerships to dramatically increasing transparency about West Philippine Sea security threats — indicate that Manila believes the time for silent acquiescence is over,” Mr. Powell said.

Political tensions brought about by stronger security ties between the Philippines and US are unlikely to affect the Southeast Asian nation’s economic relations with China, Anvil Business Club Chairman Emeritus George Siy told BusinessWorld on the sidelines of a forum.

“The Chinese are very business-minded, so the companies are not going to stop doing business with you just because there’s an issue,” he said.

Former Senator Francisco S. Tatad said allowing increased US access to Philippine military bases is illegal.

“We will sell ourselves,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the forum.

Mr. Tatad said Mr. Marcos seems to have chosen to take sides instead of staying neutral. “We are, if President Marcos’s initial moves will provide the direction, moving towards the USA,” he said. “They are good friends of ours but the point is that this is a question of war or peace.”