Commentary: Is EDCA really a deterrent?

IS our country’s Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States a deterrent?

Signed on April 28, 2014, EDCA is a supplementary agreement to our Cold War-era Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the US. Short of letting the Americans establish permanent bases in our territory, EDCA allows their forces to have rotational presence in our military bases and to be able to build facilities for repairs, refueling, and replenishment of supplies.

EDCA allows the Americans to use five military bases in our country: Antonio Bautista Airbase (Palawan); Basa Airbase (Pampanga); Fort Magsaysay (Nueva Ecija); Lumbia airport (Cagayan de Oro); and the Mactan-Benito Ebuen Airbase (Mactan).

During the Senate hearing on EDCA in December 2014, then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin touted the agreement as “a deterrent so that the Chinese won’t do what it will do to the Philippines.”

Gazmin used the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal) incident to support his claim.

Claimed also by China/Taiwan, the shoal is one of the features in the Spratly Islands occupied by our country. We maintain a garrison there, manned by a few soldiers, the BRP Sierra Madre landing craft, which the government deliberately run aground in 1999.

Responding to the question of Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Gazmin asserted that EDCA was a deterrent because China didn’t attack the resupply mission to the shoal; no “shooting war” happened.

But was that proof of deterrence? Was China’s restraint caused by EDCA?

Deterrence happens if your adversary who is willing and ready to use force decided not to because he’s threatened by your military capability and, more importantly, by your resolve to use it against him.

EDCA, just like the MDT, doesn’t guarantee automatic defense. This is clear in Article IV of the MDT, the mother pact of EDCA, which states that the course of action the parties to the treaty would take in case of an armed attack against any of them will have to be decided according to their “constitutional processes.”

The late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago quizzed Gazmin on this during the Senate hearing.

Santiago asked: “What will the US do if a Chinese ship fires at a Philippine ship in the West Philippine Sea?”

Gazmin answered that “we can pull the US to join in the fight;” but before the US could intervene, their Congress must first approve it. And “the process takes long,” Gazmin admitted.

Thus, before the US decides to intervene, China would already have accomplished a fait accompli. Yet Gazmin was adamant that EDCA would serve as a deterrent to China.

For EDCA to be a deterrent, it must be a threat recognized by China as credible. But how could EDCA be a credible deterrent if 1) the additional military force EDCA provides is not under our control; and 2) since we can’t control it, we cannot possibly have the resolve to use it. EDCA is not a stick with which our country could threaten China. Further weakening its deterrence effect is the fact, which Gazmin also recognized, that the US is under no obligation to automatically come to our defense.

Moreover, complicating the issue is the difficulty of determining whether something was a successful deterrent. As Henry Kissinger put it:

Since deterrence can only be tested negatively, by events that do not take place, and since it is never possible to demonstrate why something has not occurred, it became especially difficult to assess whether the existing policy was the best possible policy or a just barely effective one.

That the Chinese didn’t attack our resupply mission to the Second Thomas Shoal might not be because EDCA deterred them from doing it but because they simply didn’t see the shoal as anything of significant strategic value to warrant a shooting war with us.

As Zhoun Yangfin, director of the Center for China Regional Strategies, couched it in “Between Assertiveness and Self-Restraint: Understanding China’s South China Sea policy,” the Second Thomas Shoal affords only “a very limited improvement in China’s overall strategic position in the South China Sea, and only at a potentially high cost in terms of a serious setback in relations between China and many Southeast Asian countries.”

China had a decade or so to tow away the BRP Sierra Madre so it could occupy the Second Thomas Shoal, yet it didn’t do it. During those years, we didn’t even have an EDCA to deter China. If China had kicked us out of a feature we occupy, it would have been perceived a more aggressive act and cost China more diplomatic capital.

Within the four years since EDCA was enforced, we have witnessed the Chinese build artificial islands, structures, and installations on the South China Sea features that they already occupied. EDCA didn’t deter China from militarizing them. And it’s worth mentioning that it wasn’t EDCA but the Duterte administration’s rapprochement with China that allowed our fishermen to go back to Scarborough Shoal.

Shouldn’t we open the debates again on EDCA and talk about what it has successfully deterred? And more importantly, shouldn’t we evaluate it in terms of the long-term geopolitical developments in the region? The probability of a Sino-America armed conflict is quite high. Is it really in the interest of our people to further entangle our country in that future conflict?

(Published in The Manila Times on 27 February 2018)

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  1. The debates on EDCA isn’t only about deterrence—be it effective or successful, especially this time when China successfully built their military bases in those islands UNCLOS said within the Philippines territory as an archipelagic state while we have this EDCA. Rather, the debates on EDCA was about the constitutionality, and the Supreme Court sustained it as constitutional. Also, evaluating it in terms of long-term geopolitical developments is out of the context of the constitutionality framework. And while the probability of SIno-America armed conflict is high, the probability of the Philippines to be entangled in this future conflict is also high whether or not there is EDCA. This highly likely conflict and situations may happen even without EDCA.


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