The Philippine government has identified Balabac, Palawan’s southernmost municipality, as one of the four new Expanded Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites under its enhanced defense agreement with the United States.
The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is currently completing a base in a 300-hectare property in the municipality.
In a release by the Presidential Communications Office (PCO) on Monday, the Palace said Naval Base Camilo Osias in Sta. Ana, Cagayan; Lal-lo Airport in Lal-lo, Cagayan; Camp Melchor Dela Cruz in Gamu, Isabela; and Balabac in Palawan, are “suitable and mutually beneficial” sites for EDCA.
The military has surveyed and evaluated the four locations, according to the statement, and determined that their usage for humanitarian and relief operations during emergencies and natural disasters would enhance the Philippines’ disaster response.
In 2014, the EDCA was signed, making it possible for the armed forces of the Philippines and the United States to collaborate on training, disaster relief efforts, and other initiatives geared toward modernization.
Prior to the identification of additional EDCA sites, five are already existing in Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija; Basa Air Base, Pampanga; Antonio Bautista Air Base, Puerto Princesa City; Mactan-Benito Abuen Air Base, Cebu; and Lumbia Air Base, Cagayan de Oro.
Earlier in March, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr., announced that Filipino and American officials have reached an agreement on the four new sites, the primary objective of which is to protect the country’s eastern coast.
According to Marcos, the United States has been given permission to access all four of the new locations in addition to the previous sites.
Balabac is a second class municipality in southern Palawan with an estimated 42,527 population, according to the 2020 census. It sits at the farthest westerly point of the Philippines, and is separated from the Malaysian state of Sabah by the Balabac Strait.
The island town has a total of 36 islands and islets, and is known for the rare native flora and fauna that it harbors, such as the estuarine crocodiles that inhabit its mangroves and the Philippine mouse deer.
Former governor Jose Alvarez, who is currently the House representative for the Second District of Palawan, has great expectations for Balabac, dubbing it “the next Maldives” and predicting that it would be essential to the development of the province’s southernmost part as a new tourist haven.
“Balabac is bigger than Singapore, kapag natapos ko ‘yong road at na-connect ang mga barangay [ay it will be] one such beautiful place. If there is El Nido in the north, we will open Balabac to everyone [in the south],” Alvarez said in interviews in February 2022.
“Itong Balabac ay very progressive, in the next 25 years these people [ay] sila ang mag-eenjoy nito,” he added.
Concerns over EDCA
Despite President Marcos’ confidence in the defense cooperation agreement, Sen. Imee Marcos voiced her concern about the expansion during a visit to Palawan last month, where she met with senior-level officers of the Western Command (WESCOM), asserting that the four new sites are near the Taiwan Strait, where tensions with China are rising.
She is holding out hope that they would not be used for purposes that would put the safety of the country in peril.
“Sana hindi ito maging base militar at higit sa lahat, hindi ito maging staging site ng pag-atake. At magiging bukas tayo sa iba’t ibang dayuhang papasok dito,” she added.
“Kung kalaban ng iba, bakit naman tayo manghihimasok? Yun ang kinatatakutan natin dahil hindi naman tayo handa at yung WESCOM natin ay puro tapang ang ipinaglalaban natin, hindi naman pwedeng puro ganoon,” Sen. Marcos said then.
She also said that the new, bigger EDCA is meant to stop tensions from getting worse in the Taiwan Straits, not the Philippines’ worries in the West Philippine Sea.
4 new sites ‘very strategic’
Carlito Galvez Jr., chief of the Department of National Defense (DND), expressed gratitude to the President for granting him power to announce the four additional EDCA locations.
Galvez stated that their counterparts in the United States have been waiting for the news so that their House may appropriate the required funds.
“I was instructed by the President kanina na (earlier that) we have to announce it, we are very so happy and very thankful to the President,” Galvez told reporters on Monday.
“Actually, ‘yan ang hinihintay ng ating counterparts so that [they] can immediately make necessary recommendations [to their] Congress, kasi it will be budgeted by their Congress. The earlier it will be announced, the faster it will be,” he added.
The new EDCA locations, he said, are “very strategic,” particularly the Naval Base Camilo Osias and the one on Balabac Island.
Galvez explained that the site in Balabac Island is near the so-called “SLOC”, or sea lanes of communications, which is an important shipping route.
He added that the new EDCA locations are beneficial to the country as this will provide “all-around security.”
Initially, DND spokesperson Arsenio Andolong claimed that the EDCA sites would be storage and warehousing facilities for military supplies rather than American military outposts.
This month, Filipino and American troops are scheduled to hold their largest-ever military exercise.
The Pentagon announced that the United States and the Philippines have agreed to review the full range of their maritime cooperation in the 2 + 2 meeting in Washington DC also this month.
The EDCA, signed in 2014, allows US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, and the right to build facilities and preposition equipment, aircraft and vessels, but rules out permanent basing.
It is a key pillar of the US-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training, exercises and interoperability between Filipino and American forces. (with Azer Parrocha and Priam F. Nepomuceno/PNA)