Manila may get more defense gear with Austin visit

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

US DEFENSE Secretary Lloyd J. Austin’s visit to the Philippines would probably lead to Manila getting more military hardware from its top ally, political analysts said on Wednesday, citing his ties to the American defense industry.

Mr. Austin, who arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday night, would likely echo the security doctrine of the Obama administration, which started a pivot to Asia and pursued a policy that allowed the US to have access to certain Philippine bases, they added.

Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher, expects Mr. Austin to also lobby on behalf of the US military industry complex during his Philippine visit.

“It is likely to translate to deals on military hardware,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Mr. Austin, 69, has been on the board of Raytheon, a major defense contractor, since 2016, US-based Project On Government Oversight said in a website post published in 2020 after US President Joseph R. Biden appointed him Defense chief.

“He’s also a partner at the investment firm Pine Island, which recently started targeting the defense industry,” it added.

Mr. Austin is expected to meet with his Philippine counterpart Carlito G. Galvez, Jr. and other senior officials.

The meetings will focus on building “strong bilateral relationship,” the US official tweeted, attaching a video of him being given honors upon his arrival.

They would discuss “a range of security initiatives” and advance a“shared vision” of a free Indo-Pacific region, he added.

Mr. Austin’s visit comes weeks after Chinese authorities drove away a Filipino fishing vessel in a Philippine-claimed area in the South China Sea on Jan. 9.

“US interests in the Philippines tend to be transparent these days,” Mr. Juliano said. “It’s about bolstering their active allies — Taiwan and Japan — and ensuring we swing back to their influence vis-a-vis our economic and territory clashes with China.”

“There is also base expansion activity to consider beyond the current visiting forces agreement (VFA), which has been the driving demand of many realists and hawks in the Philippine security sector,” he added.

Mr. Austin’s Manila trip is part of his East Asia visit, which also focuses on the US alliance with South Korea.

“This trip is a testament to the idea that the current Biden administration sees an important function for its Indo-Pacific alliances in terms of directly balancing against China’s position in the region,” said Enrico V. Gloria, who teaches foreign policy at the University of the Philippines.

“It also signifies the spiraling relations between these two major powers,” he said in a Messenger chat.

He said the public could expect agreements on expanding the security cooperation between the Philippines and US and building on the momentum of the military exercises with the US held last year. There would also be pledges to strengthen existing commitments under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the presence of American forces in certain military bases in the Philippines. 

“We may also expect some clarity on granting access and developing new agreed locations based on the purposes stipulated under EDCA,” he said. These could range from “humanitarian assistance to bolstering our defense capabilities amid external threats and challenges arising on the Philippines’ western front.”

“These may benefit our Navy and Air Force in terms of bolstering maritime domain awareness capabilities and enhancing interoperability with their US counterparts.”

“We should be expecting something new on EDCA, particularly some confirmation on the final arrangements on the five locations that US forces will be given access to,” Herman Joseph S. Kraft, a political science professor at UP, said in a Viber message.

EDCA, which was signed in 2014 under the late President Benigno S.C. Aquino III, has been subjected to criticisms, with some groups saying the agreement does not benefit the country.

“We view the EDCA’s implementation as the return of US bases in our country, a means to allow the indefinite stationing of US troops in the Philippines,” Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said in a statement.

“This is a throwback to the Cold War era when countries like the Philippines were used for US wars of aggression in Asia,” it said. “It is a gross violation of our national sovereignty.”

EDCA bars American forces from establishing permanent bases in the Philippines because this would violate the Philippine Constitution.

“While it’s not necessarily a bad thing to step up cooperation, it must be done in a way that is sensitive to surrounding communities,” Karl Gerrard See, a security analyst, said in a Messenger chat. “Increased US presence through an expanded EDCA must be implemented consultatively in conjunction with affected parties.”

He said any expansion of EDCA should incorporate lessons learned since its first enforcement in 2014 took into consideration economic costs.

“Any discussion about expanding overseas basing or EDCA must also avoid being too loud or immediate to avoid triggering the regional power,” he said. “[US Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan should be a cautionary tale for this.”

Mr. Austin’s visit to the Philippines this week is expected to bring an announcement of expanded US access to military bases in the country, a senior Philippine official said on Tuesday.

Washington is eager to extend its security options in the Philippines as part of efforts to deter any move by China against self-ruled Taiwan, while Manila wants to bolster defense of its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.

US officials have said Washington hopes for an access agreement during Mr. Austin’s visit, and that Washington had proposed additional sites under the enhanced military pact.

“There’s a push for another four or five of these EDCA sites,” a senior Philippine official said. “We are going to have definitely an announcement of some sort. I just don’t know how many would be the final outcome of that.”

The official declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Manila and Washington have a mutual defense treaty and have been discussing US access to four more bases on the northern land mass of Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, as well as another on the island of Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

EDCA allows US access to Philippine bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not a permanent presence. The US military already has access to five such sites.

The Philippine official said increased US access was needed to benefit both countries.

“We don’t want it to be directed to just the use of the United States, purely for their defense capabilities … It has to be mutually beneficial,” he said.

“And obviously, we want to make sure that no country will see… anything that we’re doing… was directed towards any conflict or anything of that sort,” he added.

He noted that after canceling a deal for the purchase of heavy-lift helicopters from Russia last year, the Philippines had reached a deal with Washington to upgrade a couple of Blackhawk helicopters that could be used for disaster relief.

Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said access to sites in northern Luzon would help US efforts to deter any Chinese move against Taiwan by putting the waters to the south of the island within range of shore-based missiles.

He said the US and Philippine marines were pursuing similar capabilities with ground-based rockets, with Manila’s particular interest being to protect its South China Sea claims.

The Philippines is among several countries at odds with China in the South China Sea and has been angered by the constant presence of vessels in its exclusive economic zone it says are manned by Chinese militia. China is also the Philippines’ main trading partner. — with Reuters