American military personnel deliver medical supplies to a hospital in Cotabato City in October 2021 as part of the United States’ assistance to the Philippines’ COVID-19 response. — PH.USEMBASSY.GOV

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter 

THE EXPANSION of the Philippines2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States would boost Manilas disaster response, the government reiterated on Sunday.

The EDCA sites will also be used for humanitarian and relief operations during emergencies and natural disasters,the Presidential Communications Office said in a press release on Sunday, citing Defense department spokesperson Arsenio R. Andolong.

Some of these facilities will be used as bases for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief operations, which are important for us because we experience at least 20 typhoons [yearly] and we are in the [Pacific] Ring of Fire,Mr. Andolong said in Filipino in a news conference. 

He said that under the military pact, US forces would be allowed to store military assets in the agreed locations. 

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. last month granted US troops’ access to four more Philippine bases, on top of the five existing locations under EDCA. 

Earlier this month, the president announced that the new EDCA sites will be “scattered around” the country. The government will announce the specific locations soon. 

“There are some in the north, there are some around Palawan, there are some further south,he said. There are various locations. 

A former military official said last year that 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 Spratlys Islands in the South China Sea. 

Mr. Andolong said EDCA sites will not be American military bases, noting that the bases would be used as storage and warehouse facilities for military logistics. 

EDCA sites could also be used for exercises or in the event of contingencies like disaster and typhoonsbut not as permanent basing facilities, he said. 

Mr. Andolong also bared that the Philippines plans to finish the construction of the five existing EDCA sites by 2024, noting that building works at the sites were interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic and former President Rodrigo R. Dutertes termination of Manilas 1998 visiting forces agreement with Washington. 

The former president restored the agreement a year later following a meeting with US Defense Secretary Lloyd James Austin III. 

We plan to complete them before 2024 or during the first quarter of 2024,Mr. Andolong said. We are playing catch up now.” 

Aside from China, lawmakers critical of Washington have also questioned the real intent of the EDCA expansion, fearing that the Philippines would be used as a staging ground for US military activities in the region.  

Senator Maria Imelda “Imee” R. Marcos, the presidents sister, had questioned the inactiveness of American armed forces in the Philippinescalamity responses, saying they are expected to assist Manila in emergency operations.  

Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief are among the areas in Philippine-US partnerships that EDCA seeks to boost, according to the military pacts purpose and scope. EDCA also seeks to promote interoperability, address short term capability gaps, promote long term modernization, and boost maritime security and maritime domain awareness.  

The Philippines could further trigger China’s assertive measures if it and the US or the US’s major allies for that matter deliver an explicit statement about military cooperation in the South China Sea, or if the US-China rivalry intensifies and spills over to the area of the disputed waters,Kwei-Bo Huang, director of Center for Global and Regional Risk Assessment at Taipei-based National ChengChi University, said via Messenger chat.  

While the more assertive measures from Beijing toward the disputed areas will continue, Beijing will concentrate mostly on Washington about its quasi-coalition strategyinvolving Manila and other Asian allies,he added.