This quandary is evident in two proposed additional EDCA sites: Subic and Cagayan. Once one of the largest US bases, Subic faces the South China Sea hotspot. After the base was decommissioned in 1992, it was transformed into a special economic zone and free port, hosting a shipyard formerly owned by beleaguered South Korean conglomerate Hanjin Heavy Industries. To forestall a possible Chinese acquisition of the distressed asset, a US private equity firm, Cerberus, bought it in November 2022.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr described the US$300 million transaction as the “biggest public-private partnership in the 75-year history of Philippine-US relations”.
But while there is value in citing national security to block Chinese attempts to take over a strategic property, one wonders if giving it to a financial company with no track record in shipbuilding makes any business sense.
At its peak, the shipyard employed about 35,000 people and helped propel the Philippines to become the world’s fifth-largest shipbuilder. Hence, more than preventing a rival from gaining a foothold, it is important for the alliance to show the deal is viable and that the acquirer is capable of turning things around.
In addition, one may ask if becoming a new EDCA site goes against the spirit of the base’s conversion to civilian use and how investors would receive the return of American military presence three decades after its departure.
Before the pandemic, China was the Philippines’ second-largest foreign investor. Both sides are aiming to resume talks for three railway projects, including one that will link the Subic base and another former US base, Clark.
Cagayan, a province in northern Luzon opposite Taiwan, faces a similar situation. Governor Manuel Mamba said he opposed the idea of hosting foreign bases, especially for nuclear powers, as they could be a magnet for attacks. Last year, while open to other forms of exercises, he opposed live-fire drills in Claveria town, arguing that they could discourage Chinese investments.
There is the worry of giving Beijing further pretext to up its ante [in the South China Sea] in response to EDCA developments
Like Subic, Cagayan also has its economic zone and free port, and Mamba is eyeing Chinese capital to modernise his province’s agriculture, rehabilitate a port in Aparri town and build an international airport.
Mamba is not the only one to have expressed reservations about increased US military presence. Imee Marcos, the president’s sister and Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chair, said the governors of Isabela and Ilocos Norte were also not consulted. Isabela is another reported EDCA site, while the president’s home province of Ilocos Norte will host one of the largest annual joint military drills this April.
The prospect of getting embroiled in a Taiwan emergency stirred unease among senior lawmakers. Senator Marcos warned against “volunteering to fight wars that are not our own”, while Senator Ana Theresia Hontiveros cautioned against rushing EDCA’s expansion, encouraging defence planners to fully exhaust current arrangements before considering adding new sites.
The effort needed to get local buy-in from affected communities may derail EDCA’s timetable. If hosting US troops and arms translates to great risks and lost trade, investment, and tourism opportunities, then local opposition may harden. Local leaders need to show results to their constituents, especially as the 2025 midterm election is not far on the horizon.
The Philippine-US alliance gained traction with Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea. Four years after China occupied Mischief Reef, Manila and Washington signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 1999, which provided legal cover for US soldiers taking part in annual exercises with their Filipino counterparts.
In 2014, two years after a stand-off over the Scarborough Shoal, the allies signed the EDCA, a supplementary agreement to the VFA. But neither the VFA nor EDCA prevented China from building and militarising artificial islands or conducting grey-zone operations in Manila’s western exclusive economic zone.
Exposing China’s illicit activities, investing in maritime capacity-building, and carrying out allied drills to signal resolve have merits. But nine bases, especially sites distant from the South China Sea, may be a step too far and may only increase the risk of getting involved in a clash over the Taiwan Strait. And there is the worry of giving Beijing further pretext to up its ante in response to EDCA developments.
When elephants fight, it’s always the grass that gets trampled. Cuba, which attempted to host Soviet ballistic missiles, and Nicaragua, which took the US to the International Court of Justice, were among the countries that suffered the most from enduring American sanctions.
The Philippines can and should defend its national interests but must avoid becoming a platform for one power against another. EDCA’s expansion exposed divisions between frontline communities and the national government and stirred debates about the evolving alliance priorities.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a visiting scholar at the National Chengchi University Department of Diplomacy and Center for Foreign Policy Studies.