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US economic support out of step with expanded PHL defense ties

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza and Beatriz Marie D. Cruz, Reporters

THE PHILIPPINES should demand more economic pledges from the United States as the two countries boost their ties in military defense, analysts said.

Washington has yet to boost its partnership with Manila on the economic front — something that China has exploited as it cements its influence in the region, said Chester B. Cabalza, founder of the Manila-based International Development and Security Cooperation.

“What remains lacking in the closer ties with Washington is the economic pledges that would answer employment opportunities, food security, and infrastructure,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“Economic security is a plus in the US’ current strategic competition with China which makes Beijing more favorable to Southeast Asian capitals due to their massive economic investments,” he added.

The Philippines is the US’ oldest military treaty ally in Asia. Their relationship has been relatively stable for decades until former President Rodrigo R. Duterte made a foreign policy pivot to China in exchange for investment pledges that only few had materialized.

President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr., 65, is seen restoring US’ relations with the Philippines, giving Washington access to four more military bases on top of the five existing sites under their 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), whose progress had been stalled during the Duterte administration. 

The EDCA expansion is seen as part of Manila’s strategy to counter China’s increasing aggression in Philippine waters in the South China Sea, which is being claimed by Beijing in almost its entirety.

China has criticized the EDCA expansion, accusing Washington of endangering “regional peace and stability.

Aside from being vocal against China’s expansive activities in the South China Sea, the US has also criticized the Asian power’s aggression against self-ruled Taiwan.

Philippine and American authorities have said the defense pact’s expansion is primarily aimed at improving the Philippines’ disaster response, dismissing claims that it will be used by Washington if the need to defend Taiwan arises.

Mr. Cabalza said that if the US will not boost its economic partnership with the Philippines, “China will use this card for its own leverage with Manila.”

“Economic security with Washington would increase the trust of Filipinos with Americans that are translated to absolute assurances that they are back not only for their defense and security interests in the region, but the US sees the Philippines as a potential investment hub,” he said.

“It should happen since Manila has been vocal lately of its support to Washington,” he said.

China has been the Philippines’ largest trade partner in recent years.

Foreign policy experts have said boosting trade with China would unlikely temper its expansive activities in Philippine waters in the South China Sea, citing Manila’s relationship with Beijing under the former administration.

Mr. Marcos Jr. earlier said the Philippines had secured $1.3 billion worth of investment pledges during his official visit to the US in May, which he said have the potential to “create around 6,700 new jobs for Filipinos.”

Geopolitical analyst Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at the De La Salle University, said the Marcos Administration remains “equally focused” on the commercial aspect of the Philippine-US ties.

“The economic component of the alliance is also a very crucial element. Unlike China’s questionable pledges, we are now witnessing a significant inflow of real US investments in action,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

“This shows how US economic engagements are centered on their sustainability, transparency, functionality, and practicality. Such economic ties with the US must continue to be maximized,” he added.

The Philippine Defense department is now headed by Gilbert C. Teodoro, who said after his appointment last week that the Philippines’ relations with China are more than just their sea disputes and that Beijing remains an important trade partner for Manila.

Meanwhile, a proposal by a Philippine senator that the US pay a fee for the use of military bases and other sites under the EDCA, which will go to the pension fund of military and uniformed personnel (MUP), will only put the government in a tricky position with the US as well as the local opposition to the expanded American presence. 

“Pursuing this push for rents in EDCA is likely to invite counter-offers from US to just ‘go back to the bases’,” Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher studying at Japan’s Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan, said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

He was referring to the presence of US-controlled military bases in the Philippines in the past, which ended in 1992.   

Senator Ronald M. Dela Rosa, a retired police general, suggested on Sunday that funds for the MUP pension may come from the US government’s payment for access to the EDCA sites.

“Let’s amend the provisions of the VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement). We can tell the US to pay the rent for the use of our facilities,” Mr. Dela Rosa told DZBB radio.

Discussions are ongoing for the mandatory contribution of MUP for their pension fund starting next year.

“Negotiating that (fees) on EDCA would put additional pressure on our Department of National Defense and Department of Foreign Affairs, which is already challenged to justify it to the public,” Mr. Juliano said.

Mr. Cabalza said the country’s MUP pension is an internal concern that must be resolved by the Philippine government. 

He said that while EDCA fees may possibly be collected for economic and security development projects, using this to fund the MUP pension “is absurd and unfair for the Americans.”

Security expert Rommel C. Banlaoi said payments for EDCA sites “will give the Philippines only short term economic benefits.”

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