EDCA’s protective mantle

By Herbert Vego

ONE of yesterday’s world news was about the ongoing joint “war drill” participated in by around 2,000 Australian, American and Philippine troops (August 14-31) on board the biggest Australian war ship, HMAS Canberra, while ploughing through the disputed South China Sea in the face of China’s growing military presence thereat.

Known as “Exercise Alon”, this is a welcome prelude to a series of our joint naval patrols with the armed forces of United States, Japan and Australia aimed at stopping China from militarizing the reefs near or within the West Philippine Sea.

Call it a blessing in disguise that a China Coast Guard ship had water-cannoned a Philippine supply boat en route to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal. It must have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Australia’s concern may be discerned from the planned visit of Defense Minister Richard Marles to his Philippine counterpart, Gilberto “Gibo” Teodoro, within the week..

China has been bullying us for seven years since the time of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who could have weakened our position by professing his “love” for President Xi Jinping and by joking about “my country” willing to become “province” of China.

Now let me say that while I am not a fan of incumbent President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. – believing that he had won the presidency through deceitful collusion between the Comelec and Smartmatic – he did right by refusing to heed some senators’ suggestion to appoint his predecessor as “special envoy to China for special concerns.”

Instead, Marcos appointed former Foreign Affairs secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr.  – concurrently ambassador to the United Kingdom — amid public doubts on his ability to deal with China. He had written 200-plus notes verbale to China over Chinese “bulliying” during Duterte’s term but none paid off.

The Senate is a big joke.  Fearful of Duterte, it’s only now that the senators have adopted a strongly worded resolution condemning China’s incursions in the West Philippine Sea.

It’s not a matter of choosing the United States over China. It just so happens that American “intervention” is provided for by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed by the then Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg in Manila in 2014.

EDCA allows the United States to rotate troops into the Philippines for extended stays and to build and operate facilities on Philippine bases for both American and Philippine forces, thus reinforcing the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) of 1951.

Much more than the reasons cited, other strong economies are just as interested in keeping the South China Sea open for international navigation. One-third of the world’s maritime shipping carrying over US$3 trillion in trade each year passes through it.

More than half of the world’s fishing vessels sail the South China Sea, and millions of people depend on these waters for their food and livelihood.

China’s scores of “provocative” actions in the West Philippine Sea have irreparably strained its “friendship” with us and compels us to depend on the United States and other foreign allies for protection.

Let us hold China accountable for violating the July 2016 ruling of the United Nations-backed Arbitral Tribunal, declaring several areas in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) part of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

The June 9, 2019 “maritime incident” that nearly drowned 22 Filipino fishermen on board a fishing vessel rammed and sunk by a bigger Chinese boat at Reed Bank should have been enough to warn us against China’s intrusion in Philippine territory.

In fact, China has already occupied our Zamora Reef in the Spratlys for military build-up, building a three-kilometer airstrip surrounded by hangars, radars, missile shelters and weapons systems.

“We’re the owners of the resources there,” former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio lamented in a TV interview. “There is no legal dispute as to the ownership of oil, fish, and gas. It belongs exclusively to the Philippines. The only problem is how to get China to comply.”

And so, while we are not militarily equipped to go to war with China, we can still scare them away with a little help from our big friends.