BY AILEEN S.P. BAVIERA
East-West Center Asia-Pacific Bulletin
President Barack Obama’s visit to the Philippines, the last leg of his recent four-nation Asian tour, produced a new bilateral defense agreement that was touted by some observers as the single most significant outcome of his regional foray. The agreement was said to contribute to his goals of reassuring allies and signaling that the United States is serious about its “rebalance” to Asia. How does the signing of the 10-year Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) help promote overall security relations between the United States and the Philippines and how might the agreement impact ongoing efforts to manage the territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea?
When the Philippine government of Corazon Aquino voted in 1991 to close Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base—major American military facilities in Southeast Asia—at the end of the Cold War, the strategic importance of the alliance to both parties declined. Notwithstanding cordial relations with China in the past and active multilateral diplomacy with ASEAN, Philippine governments since the 1980s have sought to persuade the United States to include Manila’s territorial claims in the South China Sea in the scope of their mutual defense obligations. Absent such guarantees, many Filipinos believe the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) to be one-sided, committing Philippine support for US strategic objectives while failing to secure US support for the one external defense issue that truly matters to Manila.