Twenty-eight years after the EDSA people power revolution and 23 years after the Philippine Senate kicked the U.S. bases out of the Philippines, the Americans are back at the request of the Philippine government. Why?
The toppling of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986 whipped up nationalistic fervor among the new intelligentsia who saw an opportunity to create a society free of foreign influence and interference. It was a period of unbridled nationalism that blamed the malaise of the past on America’s perceived meddling in the Philippines’ national affairs.
It did not then come as a surprise that the 1987 Constitution was crafted to prohibit foreign military bases on Philippine soil. Article XVIII, Section 25, of the new constitution states that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”
In 1991, twelve senators voted 12-11 to reject the extension of the US-Philippines Military Bases Agreement. The vainglorious senators – who called themselves, the Magnificent 12 – justified their vote by claiming that the treaty was favorable to the U.S. but not to the Philippines. The following year, the U.S. bases were closed.
Two years after the closure of the U.S. bases in 1992, China seized the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) in the middle of the night. And the Philippine Armed Forces couldn’t do anything to take it back.
In the past three years, China aggressively pursued her territorial claim to about 80% of the South China Sea including the Spratly archipelago. In 2012, she took possession of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).
That didn’t bode well with President Benigno Aquino III, who, ultimately would bear a stigma of guilt should he fail to do something to deter Chinese aggression. While the U.S.-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is still in effect, there is no ironclad guarantee that America would come to the Philippines’ aid in a timely fashion.
Recently, China attempted to take possession of Ayungin Shoal, which is only 105 nautical miles from the coast of Palawan and within the Philippines’ 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). But what deterred the Chinese from taking over the uninhabited but strategically located shoal was a small detachment of Philippine marines deployed to a rusty naval ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, which lay aground off Ayungin.
Consequently, China made several diplomatic efforts to pressure the Philippine government into removing Sierra Madre from the vicinity, claiming that China has absolute and indisputable sovereignty over Ayungin and the rest of the Spratlys including the proven oil- and gas-rich Recto Bank. But with a navy with no warships and an air force with no warplanes, the Philippines is defenseless against Chinese attack.
The signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) last April 28, 2014 came at a time when China was poised to strike at the Spratly islands. Signed hours before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Manila, EDCA will give American forces temporary access to selected Philippine military bases, and allow them to preposition fighter jets and ships.
The question is: How significant is EDCA to the overall rebalancing of U.S. naval and air forces in the Asia-Pacific region? To answer that question, one has to be cognizant of China’s goal of controlling the First Island Chain and Second Island Chain. The First Island Chain runs from Japan all the way to Vietnam by way of Taiwan, Philippines, Borneo, Malaysia, and Singapore. The Second Island Chain runs from Japan all the way to Australia by way of the U.S. territories of Guam and Saipan, and Papua New Guinea.
In an article titled, “China to take Second Island Chain by 2020,” published last year in the Want China Times, it said: “In 1982, Admiral Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the PLA Navy and the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, said that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020. The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy.”
Prior to the signing of EDCA, the Philippines was the weakest link in the First Island Chain. Not anymore. EDCA strengthened the chain link; thus, containing China to the confines of East China and South China Seas.
Obama’s four-nation Asian tour to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines plays an important part in maintaining the status quo and balance of power in the Asia-Pacific Region. China should realize that she couldn’t – and shouldn’t — bully her neighbors into submission for as long as America remains a Pacific power.
It was a long journey from EDSA to EDCA indeed. But it was a journey worth taking.