Junk EDCA (Sarah Raymundo/Arkibong Bayan)
Junk EDCA (Sarah Raymundo/Arkibong Bayan)

Although critical of President Benigno Aquino III, Senate minority leader—and former Marcos defense minister—Juan Ponce Enrile verbalized what the Aquino administration hasn’t been explicitly saying about the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Speaking to the media a day after the Supreme Court ruling that EDCA is an executive agreement rather than a treaty and therefore did not need Senate approval, Enrile declared that the country needs EDCA because “we cannot protect our people since we don’t have credible defense forces.”

The Enrile argument in favor of EDCA echoed what had either been merely implied in the Aquino administration’s defense of it, or broadly hinted at by its other supporters: because the Philippine military cannot defend the Philippines, it’s up to the United States to do it. It’s an argument as hoary with age as EDCA’s latest advocate, having been first raised in 1946 by Manuel Roxas, and repeated ad nauseam by a succession of so-called Philippine leaders during the Cold War era.

The perceived enemy then was the “international communist conspiracy” led by the Soviet Union and “Red China,” both of which, it was said, were after world domination, and presumably had their sights on the Philippines. Then as now, it was the US that was supposed to defend the country, thus the Mutual Defense Agreement and the presence of US military bases. Then as now, fear—and a large dose of good, old-fashioned shared interests between the Philippine elite and its US patrons —were the primary justifications for Philippine military dependency.

The supposed threat never materialized. What did occur were such problems as a near-epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases, hordes of illegitimate children, the shooting of Filipino scavengers, various crimes committed by US troopers that never reached Philippine courts, and other “irritants” in the vicinities of the US bases of Clark and Subic.

But assuming that the threat was real—or that the succession of administrations from Roxas’ to Aquino’s really believed it to be real—wasn’t it reasonable to expect them to do something about it other than to rely on the US to defend the country from its presumed enemies? For a supposedly sovereign republic to rely on a foreign power for its defense is after all patently absurd.

Apparently not to this country’s rulers. The Marcos martial law regime was in a unique position to bring the capability of the Philippine military to defend the country to a level way beyond its current incapacity. The authoritarian powers Marcos claimed for himself supposedly to save the Republic freed him from either legislative or judicial oversight, and he could have strengthened the country’s military capability to a point where it would no longer have to rely on a foreign power for its defense.

Instead, Marcos put his trust on the US defense umbrella, under the terms of which the country received military aid, which then as now went to “improvements” such as barracks and dining facilities and roads. Whatever military hardware the Philippines received —helicopters, for instance—were the rejects of the US and far from contributing to developing the “credible defense force” that, according to the political elite, was needed to meet supposed threats to the country’s security.

The succession of administrations that followed Marcos did no better. One of the mantras of the Fidel Ramos administration was the need to modernize the Philippine military, by which it meant equipping it with the latest military hardware. But like nearly everything else that the Philippine government adopts or claims to adopt as policy, nothing came of it except talk, the funds supposedly for military modernization having disappeared into the usual black hole of bureaucratic corruption.

The Enrile defense of EDCA is particularly ironic—and outstanding for its denial of any responsibility for the failure of the administration he served as defense secretary (later minister) to do something about the state of the armed forces so it could “protect our people.” Instead of developing the military’s capacity for external defense, the Marcos regime focused on using the military for the oppression rather than the protection of the people, which among other atrocities meant the arrest, detention, torture and even murder of oppositionists, dissenters and suspected opponents of the regime. The military doesn’t need fighter jets or submarines to do what it’s so good at, which is torturing and killing prisoners and assassinating human rights defenders, environmentalists, lumads and anyone else with courage enough to protest anything —and it certainly didn’t need them during the Marcos tyranny.

Marcos had plenty of collaborators in his foul enterprise, among them defense minister Juan Ponce Enrile, the Philippine Constabulary’s Fidel Ramos, and Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Fabian Ver, who were the principal enforcers of martial law.

Now the former defense minister of a regime that could have done something about the military capacity to shield the country from external threats is defending EDCA on the basis of the Marcos and all succeeding regimes’—including the present one’s—failure to do anything about it. That failure was due to the focus on the same internal pacification policy that has been in place in this country since the US occupied it at the turn of the 20th century rather than on external defense.

The argument in support of allowing foreign troops into the country and into Philippine military bases is the same as it was in the 1950s: the Philippine faces an external threat from China, although it’s no longer “red,” but an aggressive and arrogant capitalist bully cast in the same mold as the US, which owes it trillions of dollars and needs it as a source of cheap labor and as a vast market for its goods.

Despite that reality in US-China relations, the simple-minded assumption in this neck of the woods is that the latter will come to the defense of the Philippines anyway should China “attack” it, although what’s likely is that China will simply keep on encroaching into Philippine waters, while the US makes the usual statements about the “close ties” between it and the Philippines, but does nothing.

This is the same Philippines the US Congressional Research Service describes as “a vibrant democracy with a robust civil society,” but which, in the same breath, it describes as facing “significant challenges to political stability and economic growth, including pervasive corruption, a weak judicial system, armed groups and insurgencies in parts of the country, extra-judicial killings committed by security forces, and violence against journalists.” These are all characteristics, I suppose, of this “vibrant democracy” whose defense is in the hands of a foreign power.

The president of that foreign power made clear in his final State of the Union Address what US intentions in the Asia Pacific region are. Barack Obama declared that it is the US rather than China that should be “setting the rules” in the region, forgetting, or probably never really knowing, that there’s a third option: the other countries of the region’s involvement in “setting the rules” rather than its being the exclusive entitlement of either China or the US.

The Philippines is among those countries. But then, with EDCA in place, and the Philippines being without “credible defense forces,” who’s going to say that we should be among those setting the rules in this region? Benigno Aquino III? Albert Del Rosario of foreign affairs? Voltaire Gazmin of defense? Certainly not these brilliant worthies—and certainly not Marcos’ defense minister.

(First published in BusinessWorld. Image courtesy of Sarah Raymundo/Arkibong Bayan)

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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