November 28, 2022

(UPDATE) THE military capability of the Philippines can be considered as one of the weakest in the region, Department of National Defense (DND) Officer in Charge Senior Undersecretary Jose Faustino Jr. admitted on Monday evening.

Answering queries made by lawmakers before the House Committee on National Defense and Security as to why the Philippines, in particular the Armed Forces, failed to prevent China from erecting structures in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), Faustino said it is one of the main reasons why there is an urgent need to fund the AFP’s modernization program.

The DND official likewise said that they are open to a possible joint venture when it comes to using idle military lands. However, he said that the properties will not be sold.

Surigao del Norte Second District Rep. Robert Ace Barbers asked why despite the intelligence funds of the military, the AFP has not prevented China from building a military facility in the WPS.

Faustino said they are aware but are cautious of their actions.

“We are very careful in dealing with this using military action because we might be subjecting ourselves to mistakes and miscalculations. But rest assured, the constructions, we are aware of them. There were hundreds of diplomatic protests,” he said.

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Representative Barbers suggested that it is best to show China that the Philippines is no pushover.

But Faustino said that the military capability of the Philippines is not at par with the neighbors.

“I would not say that we are a pushover. Admittedly, our military capability is one of the weakest in the region. It is exactly why we are trying to modernize right now. We are trying to strengthen our position. We are aligning with our treaty partners and like-minded countries. We would like to have a rules-based international order in those areas,” he said.

Despite this, Faustino assured lawmakers that the AFP has been conducting patrols and maintaining its presence in the West Philippine Sea with available resources.

Faustino stressed that they are appealing to the lawmakers to help modernize the AFP.

In a related development, the DND on Tuesday said that construction for the three projects under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the Philippines and the United States will start next year.

In a statement, the DND said that currently $66.5 million has been earmarked for the implementation of approved EDCA projects.

“These are projects that are slated for implementation in the next two years,” the DND statement said.

The projects include the construction of training, warehouse and other facilities at Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Ramon Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, and Lumbia Airport Base Station in Cagayan de Oro City.

“The Department is committed to accelerating the implementation of the EDCA by having infrastructure enhancement and repair projects, developing new infrastructure projects at existing EDCA locations, and exploring new locations that will build a more credible mutual defense posture,” the statement further said.

Likewise, the DND said that the Philippines and the US have maintained a dialogue to discuss the implementation of the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and ensure that it remains relevant to address contemporary security challenges.

Through the Mutual Defense Board (MDB) and Security Engagement Board (SEB), both sides continue to discuss and collaborate on projects under EDCA.

The DND said it remains consistent in its position that all engagements with the US as well as other foreign partners must be conducted in accordance with the Constitution.

“The Department is focused on planning joint activities that will enable us to develop our individual and joint capacity to address current security challenges in line with the implementing details provided by Philippines-US defense agreements anchored on the MDT,” the statement said.

“With the progress in Fort Magsaysay, Basa Air Base, and Antonio Bautista Air Base, the Department hopes to be able to complete other pending projects,” it added.

Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Vicente Bacarro had said that the United States has expressed interest in building five more facilities in the country under EDCA.

“Yes, there is a new proposal for EDCA projects,” Bacarro said.

He said that among those sites being looked at include two locations in Cagayan, and one each in Palawan, Zambales and Isabela.

“It is still not definite yet. It will still be subject to vetting,” he clarified.

Bacarro said that such proposals are still the subject of review and approval by DND and the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

A series of talks and negotiations began in August 2013, and the EDCA was signed in 2014.

This allows US troops access to designated certain Philippine military facilities, as well as gives them the right to build facilities and preposition equipment, aircraft, and vessels. However, it rules out permanent basing.

Under the EDCA, the Philippine government is working with the United States to build the future facilities in Cesar Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation in Nueva Ecija; Lumbia Airfield in Cagayan de Oro City; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan; and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu.

DND Senior Undersecretary Faustino said that the sites that will be used for EDCA will be used for “training facilities and warehouses.”

“We already have five EDCA agreed locations and there are ongoing projects now and for the next two years, the concentration will be on the completion of the projects within EDCA during the MDB-SEB (Mutual Defense Board-Security Engagement Board) held in Hawaii. There were some additional EDCA sites being considered,” he said.

Such will undergo a process that includes constitutional provisions.

“Of course, we have to consider some constitution provisions, some of our national laws before we could go into that. So, right now, we’ll just forward [it] to the DFA [for] their comments regarding the additional EDCA sites,” he said.