By: Aaron-Matthew Lariosa
September 19, 2023
The head of the U.S. military in the Pacific toured sites American forces could access in wartime and held high-level defense talks in the Philippines last week.
The joint U.S.-Philippine delegation, which included U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino, Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson, and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff General Romeo Brawner, visited Lal-lo Airport, Naval Base Camilo Osias, and Basa Air Base. These bases are among the nine designated under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a deal that allows U.S. troops and equipment to operate out of select military bases throughout the Philippines. The EDCA also allows for American-funded projects at these bases. From an original five sites in 2014, EDCA now covers nine as of the recent expansion in April that added Lal-lo Airport and Naval Base Camilo Osias.
“The work that [General Brawner’s] team has done in coordination with our team to further advance capabilities here in the Philippines is truly impressive. We’re very pleased. I was here a year ago, and the progress of the runway and all the sites is moving at a great pace, thanks to our strong partnership,” Aquilino said during the tour.
While Aquilino previously visited EDCA sites, construction within the past year has ramped up. The delegation highlighted the progress on the $24 million runway renovation and extension project at Basa Air Base. Basa is also receiving attention from the Pacific Deterrence Initiative, with the U.S. Air Force’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget estimates document putting aside $35 million for a Transient Aircraft Parking Apron at the air base.
The Philippines has been investing in EDCA sites as well, particularly those in Palawan near the South China Sea. These bases are also used as hubs for the many exercises the U.S. and the Philippines hold in the country.
“We are very pleased with the progress of these projects, and we are highly optimistic that next year, more of these projects will be operational, allowing us to engage in joint exercises and operations immediately,” Brawner said.
Throughout the tour, the joint delegation highlighted how the sites can help in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief operations. Due to the disaster-prone nature that the Philippines faces due to its geography, a core component of the U.S.-Philippine security relationship is HADR. One of the first completed projects under the agreement was a warehouse at Basa Air Base dedicated to storing supplies for HADR operations. Just last month, U.S. Marine Corps MV-22B Ospreys used Lal-lo Airport to deliver water and food in the aftermath of Typhoon Egay. U.S. forces have also used the sites to assist the Philippine government with search and rescue operations.
Further U.S. development in the Northern Philippines is under consideration. The U.S. Army is examining plans to build up a port on Basco in the Province of Batanes in the Luzon Strait, Reuters recently reported. While the stated reasons are for HADR operations, local officials highlighted that the existing port could not receive supplies during rough weather. U.S. forces recently trained on Basco during Balikatan 2023, when a joint U.S. Army-Marine Corps force practiced defending the island, bringing with them HIMARS via U.S. Army vessels.
Given the locations of these new sites in Northern Luzon and their proximity to Taiwan, the announcement has sparked controversy in the Philippines, particularly among politicians from the northern provinces. Philippine military officials have rebuffed the criticisms, arguing the locations are crucial for the defense of the country and that the U.S. could not store weapons meant for Taiwan-related operations,
However, China has criticized the Philippines for allowing American access to the sites. The Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian claimed that Manila was increasing tensions by allowing American basing access.
“Philippines is advised to unequivocally oppose ‘Taiwan independence’ rather than stoking the fire by offering the U.S. access to the military bases near the Taiwan Strait, if you care genuinely about the 150,000 OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers),” said Huang.
With over 100,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan, the Philippines has expressed concern about the repatriation of their citizens amid increased activity from Beijing against Taipei. Both Philippine President Bongbong Marcos and Armed Forces of the Philippines officials have said the northernmost EDCA sites are expected to serve as evacuation points for Filipinos in Taiwan in the event of a conflict.
The AFP seems to address this controversy in a news release about the site visits, stating that both the U.S. and the Philippines stress “that all EDCA sites are sovereign Philippine territory” and “all future projects will undergo vetting by the Philippine government for consideration in future operations and mutual benefit.”
Following the joint tour, Aquilino and other U.S. officials met with their Philippine counterparts in Manila for the 2023 Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board. The bilateral talks included next year’s joint military exercises and HADR operations. During the premier defense dialogue between the two countries, Philippine state media reported that both Aquilino and Brawner recommended more bases get earmarked under the EDCA.
“Gen. (Romeo) Brawner (Jr.) (Armed Forces of the Philippines chief) and I may make recommendations to our senior leaders for the consideration of additional sites but there is still work to do there before we get to that answer,” Aquilino said.
Both American and Philippine officials agreed to 63 new projects at the nine EDCA sites throughout the country, with both parties highlighting how these projects increase their interoperability with each other.
A U.S. INDOPACOM news release stated that the two countries agreed to “over 500 joint activities scheduled for 2024 to include exercises, high-level exchanges between the allied nations and capability building in maritime security, combatting terrorism and transnational crime, cyber security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and many other national security interests.”