EDCA Refocus: Eyes on the AFP’s Modernization Program

On January 12, the Philippine Supreme Court ruled that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States is an executive agreement that does not require Senate approval. With the ruling in hand, the Philippines and the United States governments can begin in earnest to implement the 2014 deal, which mainly provides for the United States to deploy forces to Philippine bases on a rotational basis, pre-position humanitarian response and defense materiel in the country, upgrade infrastructure within Philippine bases for these purposes. Inked in time for U.S. president Barack Obama’s first visit to Manila and in the shadow of growing tensions with China in the South China Sea, the Aquino government intended for EDCA to complement the Philippines’ rebooted military modernization effort.

Two years before EDCA was signed, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) received a fresh mandate to modernize after the passage of the Revised AFP Modernization Act. The 2012 law has the effect of restarting the clock on the 1995 AFP Modernization Act, which was enacted after the United States withdrew from its then-bases in the Philippines in 1992. As a result of the withdrawal, the Philippines became an impotent treaty ally with no serious military force of its own to deter external threats. The 1995 law aimed to give some teeth to the AFP, which had been traditionally developed as an inward-facing institution focused on fighting insurgencies. Soon after that law was enacted, however, financial constraints brought about by the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis resulted in the modernization effort being effectively defunded until its mandate lapsed in 2010.

By 2012, the AFP was no further along as an externally-oriented force than it was in 1995. Worse, key defense capabilities had seriously deteriorated; for example, the Air Force decommissioned the last of its Vietnam War-era fighter planes in 2005. Without pressing external threats, the need to revamp the military slid further and further down the list of government priorities. When the alarm bells rang in Manila over the standoff with China in Scarborough Shoal, both the executive and legislative branches of government got behind a renewed effort to invest in the Armed Forces even as diplomatic and legal processes were pursued by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

As conceived, EDCA would work hand-in-hand with the AFP modernization effort. At the time of signing, EDCA’s initial 10-year period (the deal is renewable) overlapped with the 13 years remaining in the modernizing law. The United States would shoulder the cost of upgrading AFP infrastructure for both countries’ use, boost disaster response readiness through pre-positioned supplies, and facilitate further training between military men on both sides. Over roughly the same period, the AFP could focus on acquiring basic hardware and put the pieces in place to monitor and secure Philippine territory more independently. The delayed implementation of the EDCA, however, prevented the AFP from concentrating on those priorities. Uncertainty before the court’s decision forced the AFP to plan for the possibility that all of the assistance promised in EDCA might be blocked by the constitutional challenge and an unfriendly senate.

With that context in mind, the Supreme Court’s decision on EDCA is especially welcome if it will allow a greater portion of the Philippine conversation over national defense to shift back to the issues around the prioritization and conduct of the AFP’s modernization program. Because defense planning and procurement timelines span decades, debating the goals and trajectory of the AFP today will be important to defining how the AFP will stand in the future. In material terms, Filipinos already have a serious stake in seeing this program succeed; because of the modernization program, the Department of National Defense (DND) is the third-highest recipient of tax funds for 2016.

With $3.6 billion, defense now comes after education ($9.1 billion) and public works and highways ($8.4 billion), and ranks higher than spending on the interior ($3.2 billion), health ($2.7 billion), and social welfare and development ($2.2 billion). This is not a paltry sum to Filipino taxpayers, but neither is it exceptional when compared to the rest of Southeast Asia. No one can afford for these funds to be squandered, just as Filipinos cannot afford to miss out on opportunities for external assistance while the military gets its house in order.

There are still misgivings over EDCA from varied quarters, who recognize that the situation does not resolve into a simple win-win scenario. At the domestic level, the presence of foreign forces calls to mind previous rape or murder cases and the outgrowth of the sex trade. At the strategic level, a stronger relationship with the United States raises concerns over undue U.S. influence over Philippine foreign policy. Relatively strong Filipino negative sentiment over China’s behavior in the South China Sea in recent years may tip the balance in favor of EDCA at the moment, but the degree of domestic support at present may not be sustained under all other possible conditions. For the Philippine and U.S. governments to implement the deal while satisfying both countries’ interests and easing Filipino fears will be a challenge all its own.

Paradoxically, these concerns should give greater impetus to EDCA’s proponents and detractors alike to channel their energies toward how the AFP can be maintained at a size and quality necessary to deter would-be aggressors and respond to threats of any nature. In the long run, the solutions to both sides’ fears can be found in raising our expectations of the DND and the AFP, investing in the capabilities with the greatest returns to our security, and having no tolerance for waste. With the Supreme Court’s decision, we should close the legal chapter in the book on EDCA and reorient our gaze to the AFP.

A version of this piece first appeared on ADRi’s Spark blog here.