Amidst South China Sea Territorial Disputes, Philippine President Emphasises Cooperation Between US and the Philippines

Manila, 17 January 2016—From the 15th to the 17th of January, the East West Center (EWC) and East-West Center Association (EWCA) held an international conference in Manila on the theme “Bridging Diverse Cultures towards an Inclusive Asia Pacific Community.” The conference provided an opportunity for EWC alumni to update their knowledge of the region as well as meet international colleagues and form new professional contacts.

Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III graced the event as keynote speaker and there took the opportunity to express his appreciation of the recent decision of the Supreme Court to uphold the legality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States.

Detailing how the Philippines would benefit from the enhanced defense cooperation pact, he said, “to my mind, EDCA has a very practical purpose for developing our own armed forces: All the modern hardware carries a significant price tag; yet with EDCA, we have a chance to try the cutting-edge equipment and see just how suitable they are to our needs, without having to buy them first.” The United States, on the other hand, “gets to learn how to make do with fewer resources, which in a conflict situation is always a high probability if not an intense possibility.”

Aquino emphasised the need for both countries to become familiar with each other’s resources, equipment, doctrines and limitations to fulfil their commitment to defend each other in times of need.

The Philippine Secretary of National Defense and U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines signed the EDCA in April 2014; the President ratified it in June of the same year. The agreement authorises the U.S. military forces to have access to and conduct activities within agreed military bases in the country. The U.S. will be allowed to build structures, as well as preposition defense equipment, supplies and materiel; station personnel and defense contractors; and transit and station vehicles, vessels, and aircraft for a period of 10 years.

The Supreme Court upheld the legality of the executive agreement on 12 January, saying that it is the President’s prerogative to do whatever is legal and necessary for Philippine defense interest. The Court declared, “It would therefore be remiss for the President and repugnant to the faithful-execution clause of the Constitution to do nothing when the call of the moment requires increasing the military’s defensive capabilities, which could include forging alliances with states that hold a common interest with the Philippines or bringing an international suit against an offending state.”

The decision came out amidst growing concern over China’s actions in the disputed waters in the South China Sea (Philippine government agencies refer to waters within its exclusive economic zone as “West Philippine Sea“). There are several territorial disputes in these waters, each involving a different collection of countries that include Brunei, China, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Faith Delos Reyes, Research and Project Coordinator of the HRRC, was at the event to present the findings of Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion in ASEAN. In a panel session with Professor Yukari Makino from Kansai University, Japan on “Conflict Resolution in International Settings,” speakers and delegates discussed the impact of ASEAN integration on rule of law and human rights in the region as well as explored the underlying reasons for violence and religious tension. Speaking specifically on the conflict in Mindanao, Philippines, delegates shared that the most pressing concerns surround distribution of economic resources, recognition, injustice and trust, emphasising the need to ensure that dignity is given to marginalised citizens.