MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government insisted Tuesday that its new accord letting the U.S. expand its military presence in the country is legal and is confident the agreement will withstand constitutional challenges.
Two court petitions argue that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement violates the constitutional ban on foreign military bases because it allows U.S. forces to establish facilities inside Philippine bases where the Americans can preposition troops and materiel indefinitely.
The accord follows the announced U.S. "pivot" to Asia where China is displaying increasing aggressiveness in its territorial conflict with its neighbors in the South China Sea, including the Philippines and Vietnam.
The Philippine military is one of the most poorly equipped in Asia, but armed forces chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista told the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the agreement would help establish a "credible deterrence" against China.
Foreign Affairs Department spokesman Charles Jose said "the executive stands by the constitutionality" of the agreement and that it was crafted in accordance with Philippine law.
Defense Department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said the government was confident it could defend the EDCA at the Supreme Court. "We reiterate that the whole negotiations were under the purview of the constitution, within the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty," he said.
President Benigno Aquino III said he expected some would question the agreement, and the petitioners "were the ones expected to file."
Aquino spoke with reporters while visiting a naval base in Palawan province, which faces the South China Sea. The base is reportedly being considered as a location for U.S. facilities under the agreement.
The two petitions argued that Philippine officials committed "grave abuse of discretion" in entering into the agreement and that it is unconstitutional. The Philippine Constitution disallows foreign military bases unless under a treaty approved by two-thirds of the 24-member Senate.
"Our main argument is not so much on the EDCA being a treaty or not, but on the more substantial issue of sovereignty and national interest," said Renato Reyes, one of those who signed Tuesday's petition. "We're not asking the EDCA to be ratified by the Senate. We're asking it be voided outright."
The government has said that the new accord is an executive agreement that implements the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and does not require Senate concurrence.
The petitions also say that the Philippines could become a target of attacks by enemies of the United States for hosting U.S. military facilities.