THE United States under its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the Philippines will have the use of two of the country’s biggest international airports for its military operations in case of a war with China, or even just to prepare for such a conflict. On top of that, two other airports — one facing the disputed Spratlys and another looking toward Taiwan — will practically be solely for the US military to use.
These facts have been diabolically concealed by the US and Philippine Defense departments’ announcements that two of the “agreed locations” under EDCA were the Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan and the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa. Most Filipinos would have never heard of these air bases (named after little-known Air Force officers killed in the line of duty), and would have thought, “Why not? These seem to be small bases we can give to the US to use.”
There would have been outrage if our defense officials had been honest enough to explain that what the country is really allowing the US to use as “platforms for war” against China — to use President Rodrigo Duterte’s words — are two of its biggest international airports.
EDCA sites are what the US military calls “cooperative security locations” or “forward operating sites” that the Americans have adopted as a strategy in the 21st century to replace most of its Cold War-era permanent military bases around the world. These are camps or even civilian installations which the US can use as its military bases on a “temporary” basis to pre-position war materiel, troops and war vehicles in case of an impending war. It is cheaper than having permanent military bases which require huge infrastructure for troops stationed there.
EDCA site “Benito Ebuen Air Base” shares the same 3,300-meter runway with the Mactan-Cebu International Airport, which has the second-longest runway in the country, and over which the military has usufruct rights, and therefore the legal authority to allow the US Air Force to use. Similarly, EDCA site “Antonio Bautista Air Base” uses the same 2,600-meter runway as the Puerto Princesa International Airport, the sole international gateway to that island.
A third major airfield given to the US to use is the Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro which has a 2,454-meter runway. Most Filipinos wouldn’t be familiar with the name as it was previously called the Cagayan de Oro Airport, Northern Mindanao’s main gateway, until it was closed down in 2013 and turned into a purely Air Force facility after a newly built airport in Laguindingan became the civilian international airport. The Lumbia airport is just 8 kilometers from the city’s center: an attack on it by, say, China would immediately affect the lives of the people of Cagayan de Oro, which has become one of the booming centers of Mindanao.
What the Philippines has actually agreed for the US military to use aren’t the small offices and barracks of the Ebuen and Bautista air bases but the runway and facilities of the Mactan-Cebu and Puerto Princesa international airports, whose runways can accommodate US state-of-the-art jet fighters, stealth bombers, and even the C-5 Galaxy, the Americans’ biggest military transport plane.
The combined runway length of these three airports and three other airfields designated as EDCA sites (Basa Air Base, Cagayan North International Airport and the Balabac airstrip) totals 15,000 meters — more than the 9,600 meters of the US’ former bases here, Clark and Subic. US bases, which the Senate rejected in 1991 despite the intense lobbying of President Corazon Aquino, are back with a vengeance.
The Mactan-Cebu International Airport was actually a US military base before. Its runway was built with US funds right after World War 2 as an emergency landing field for its B-52 bombers, then called the Mactan Air Base. The base was built up during the Vietnam War and was a permanent C-130 base housing the US 463rd Troop Carrier Wing. Mactan Air Base was also used to decongest Clark Airfield at the height of the Vietnam War, with B-52s from the US mainland on a bomb run to Vietnam and Cambodia refueling at that air base. The Americans therefore know in full detail the bases’ infrastructure and landscape, making it ideal as a platform for war with China.
It was only in the late 2000s that the Philippine Air Force’s Mactan Air Base was transformed into a civilian airport, with the construction of the new P17.5-billion terminal started in 2014.
The Mactan-Cebu International Airport is just 9 kilometers from Cebu City, which with Mactan City is the country’s second-biggest metropolis.
Were the residents of this metropolis consulted if they were willing to risk being placed in the cross-hairs of a People’s Liberation Army missile operator? Was there any evaluation on the impact of having a US military base near the Mactan Export Processing Zones 1 and 2, and the booming tourism industry in the area? Was the three-term Cebu Gov. Gwendolyn Garcia, known as the Southern Philippines’ Iron Lady for her strong-willed character, consulted?
Would they be willing to have the airport closed when an impending conflict between the US and China breaks out over the Taiwan issue?
The EDCA-site Antonio Bautista Air Base uses the same runway as Puerto Princesa International Airport, the gateway for that province’s booming tourism industry. Were its local governments consulted to find out if Palaweños, known for wanting to be left alone in their island far from the central government, would want their idyllic island regularly disturbed by the roar of US fighter planes?
Two other EDCA-designated sites aren’t part of an international airport but are, in a different way, ideal for the US military: the Cagayan North International Airport and the still-being built Balabac airport will be practically solely for the US forces to use. They are also distant from Metro Manila, they could keep whatever they are doing there secret. They are also precedents for designating in future, not only camps or military facilities as EDCA locations, but even civilian facilities.
I am quite sure that US and Philippine defense officials, as well as those from the Foreign Affairs department, had not fully explained to President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. the details of EDCA and its very serious ramifications on the lives of Filipinos.
They did not reveal to him the facts that the EDCA site Benito Ebuen Air Base uses the same runway as the Mactan Cebu International Airport, and the Antonio Bautista facility that of the Puerto Princesa International Airport. These EDCA “agreed locations” would therefore involve the destiny of the Visayas’ premier metropolis of Puerto Princesa, and of Cagayan de Oro, the second-biggest city in Mindanao.
That should be worrying for Marcos if only for its political implications: these areas were in opposition against his father’s rule starting in the 1980s.
It isn’t too late for Marcos to abort what would be the biggest risk — and this is not to exaggerate — to Filipinos’ lives at this time. EDCA expires in April next year, and he could just drag his feet on the transformation of the agreed EDCA sites into US military facilities — as his predecessor President Duterte did.
He could tell the Senate that because of the controversy it has caused, he would like the chamber to concur with the agreement and or reject it — while whispering to his allies to junk it.
The nation had decided in 1991 that it doesn’t like US bases in whatever form in the country: note that there is no sector or lobby group supporting EDCA, only the top brass of the military and the defense establishment do.
In the meantime, Marcos should fire all his Defense and Foreign Affairs officials — including his cousin, the Philippine ambassador to the US — who have been giving him misinformation and pushing for this shame on the country called EDCA.
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Book orders: www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop