(Bloomberg) -- The US and the Philippines highlighted the benefits of a recently expanded defense deal, as America’s push for greater presence in the Southeast Asian nation faced opposition from China and local politicians.
US and Philippine officials showcased the US-funded rehabilitation of the runway inside Basa Air Base north of Manila, among the five sites previously chosen to implement the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The repair is targeted for completion later this year, Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said at the groundbreaking Monday.
The $24-million plan that will enable the runway to host bigger aircraft and to operate at night is “EDCA in action” and “the latest project to strengthen” the two nations’ alliance, US Ambassador to the Philippines MaryKay Carlson said at the event. The expanded US access in the Southeast Asian nation is meant to benefit both countries, according to US Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
The military deal will also help the Philippine economy by utilizing local companies and materials, the US envoy said, touting gains from the rapprochement that’s worrying some communities and politicians including Senator Imee Marcos, the elder sister of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
The US last month secured access to four more Philippine military sites, as tensions with Beijing over Taiwan and the South China Sea persist. The move is part of a 2014 pact which allows the US to rotate its troops for prolonged stays as well as build and operate in Philippine bases. The four military locations will be announced by the two nations as soon as they can, Kendall said.
The implementation of EDCA “is now in full swing” and that “moving forward, we hope the US will consider more projects” that will strengthen the Philippines’ capability to protect its sovereignty, Galvez said in his speech. The repair will make the runway an ideal site for joint exercises, he added.
The US and the Philippines’ moves to strengthen ties are “not directed to anybody,” the defense chief said at a briefing that followed. Local leaders from Cagayan — a province near Taiwan that’s believed to be among the locations for expanded US access — have already agreed to abide by the government’s decision to boost EDCA’s implementation, Galvez said.
Weeks ago, Cagayan province Governor Manuel Mamba said US troops are “not welcome” in his turf, favoring stronger ties with China “that has been good to us.” Beijing has also criticized the deal, with its embassy in Manila describing it as part of US’ attempt to “encircle and contain.” Senator Marcos is worried the Philippines might be embroiled if US-China tensions over Taiwan escalate.
The Philippines under Marcos has been ramping up the rhetoric against China on territorial dispute while bolstering longstanding defense ties with the US that languished during the term of his predecessor. Manila is expanding military exercises with American troops and plans to restart patrols with the US in the disputed waters. Their annual joint exercises will begin on April 11.
For Major General Ramon Guiang, acting commanding general of the Philippine Air Force, the runway repair project supports the nation’s defense modernization and enhances its interoperability with the US. Washington has so far allocated $83.1 million to implement EDCA, with 15 projects in different phases, said Galvez.
Philippine envoy to the US Jose Manuel Romualdez earlier on Monday described EDCA as “a key pillar of our bilateral defense and military cooperation.”
--With assistance from Siegfrid Alegado.
(Updates with US Air Force Secretary comments in third and fifth paragraphs.)
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