The Philippines’ most credible deterrent to China’s stepped-up unilateral actions in the South China Sea is under the pen of Maria Lourdes Sereno, the chief justice of the Philippine Supreme Court. Sereno has been tasked with writing the decision of the court on whether the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would involve stationing American troops, planes, and ships in the country on a rotating basis, is constitutional. The agreement would also help the Philippines boost its maritime security through closer cooperation with the U.S. military.
Philippine defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin and U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg signed the EDCA last April, shortly before President Barack Obama arrived for a state visit to the Philippines. The administration of President Benigno Aquino III has insisted that the EDCA is an executive agreement that merely raises the scope of, and therefore falls within legal boundaries of, the two countries’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. However, a group of Philippine lawmakers, academics, activists, and former lawmakers have charged that the agreement amounts to a treaty and will require separate ratification by the Philippine senate.
Filipinos have become increasingly concerned about China’s continuing reclamation in the disputed waters of the Spratly Islands and the threats those actions pose to the Philippines’ sovereign interests. Still, many have not connected the dots on the urgent need to move ahead with the EDCA, preferably before Obama visits the Philippines to attend this year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit in November.
The EDCA has languished in the docket for nearly a year. A survey conducted by the independent pollster Social Weather Stations and commissioned by the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs in February 2014 shows that an overwhelming 81 percent of Filipinos surveyed support Aquino’s decision to seek legal clarity on China’s claims in the South China Sea at the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. 80 percent surveyed also believe that Manila should request the assistance of other countries to balance China’s growing military muscle in the disputed sea.
As China continues to destroy the reefs around waters controlled by the Philippines and dredges sand to turn rocks into islands with military features, including runways, ports, and landing areas, Filipino anxiety has rightly risen. If voters understand more clearly the link between the Supreme Court’s inaction and the inability to establish an enduring and credible deterrent to China’s efforts to change facts on the seas, there will be more voices asking the court to issue a ruling as early as possible.
The Supreme Court is now expected to rule on the constitutionality of the EDCA in July, and Gazmin said on May 26, prior to his meeting with U.S. defense secretary Ashton Carter in Hawaii, that he expects a favorable verdict.
Aquino will likely leave behind a strong legacy of working to protect the sovereignty of the Philippines. But he and his team must act with urgency to follow through on the EDCA to strengthen the Philippines’ national defense and increase the capability of the armed forces to deal with external security threats, ranging from territorial disputes to natural disasters.
Philippine citizens should speak out with a nation-unifying sense of urgency to encourage the court to make its decision so that the Aquino administration can move ahead with necessary actions to enact the EDCA.
If the EDCA is in place before Obama arrives in November, one can expect a historic visit with a robust set of deliverables focused on strong U.S. investments in enhancing Philippine defense capabilities at eight military facilities across the Philippines over the next 10 years. These investments will be fueled by funds that Senator John McCain, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has asked to be earmarked for enhanced U.S. defense spending in Asia. In addition, passing the EDCA will provide a platform for other countries interested in supporting the Philippines, such as Japan and Australia, to invest in increased defense and maritime awareness capabilities alongside the Philippine and the U.S. militaries.
This scenario will also potentially pave the way for Obama to visit areas outside of Manila during his trip, where he can meet with local leaders who will benefit from planned infrastructure investments under the EDCA and beefed-up local capacity to respond to natural disasters and provide home-grown humanitarian assistance to people in need.
Equally important, passing the EDCA will allow the two governments to move on to address the next pressing issue in U.S.-Philippines relations—what many Filipinos see as the lack of clarity in the U.S. commitment to the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty. Obama, who declared last year in Manila that the United States has an “ironclad” commitment to the Philippines, will be more likely to clarify the scope of U.S. commitment if Washington perceives a strong commitment to partnership from Manila. Such a pledge could reasonably extend the United States’ commitment to come to the defense of Philippine forces as well as ships and aircraft that are attacked in disputed waters.
However, if the Supreme Court does not move expeditiously on the EDCA and the agreement is not in place before Obama’s visit, the White House will have to ask whether the Philippines is serious about implementing its treaty alliance with the United States. Obama will also be more constrained in his ability to talk about potential U.S. investments in the Philippines’ defense modernization efforts, thereby sending signals to Beijing of Manila’s uncertainty even as Filipinos will be preparing to head into a national transition that will elect a new president to replace Aquino in May 2016.
The national interests of the Philippines depend on the actions of Justice Sereno. She has the opportunity to lead the Supreme Court in contributing to Aquino’s efforts to defend Philippine sovereignty and strengthen the country’s national defense capabilities and international security partnerships for generations to come.
Ernest Bower is Chair of the Southeast Asia Advisory Board at CSIS.