Hontiveros wants multilateral defense agreements without foreign sites in PH

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, March 1) —  Senator Risa Hontiveros on Wednesday suggested that the Philippines could push for multilateral defense partnerships with other countries without the need to establish foreign facilities in the country.

In a Senate briefing, the senator said the Armed Forces of the Philippines could consider conducting drills and exercises together with neighboring Southeast Asian nations, or those considered as naval powers.

"Bakit hindi tayo tulad sa US at Australia na magkaroon ng mga Balikatan sa ibang mga ASEAN countries?" said Hontiveros.

[Translation: Why don't we follow the US and Australia which have Balikatan exercises with ASEAN countries?]

"Bakit hindi tayo magdagdag ng Balikatan sa mga miyembro ng Quad at ibang naval powers na gusto rin mag-ensure ng rules-based approach sa South China Sea, without necessarily adding EDCA sites on land?" she added. "Hindi ba pwede tayong magdagdag o mag-maintain ng multilateral exercises on the water na hindi natin kailangan magdagdag ng bilateral sites on land?

[Translation: Why don't we conduct Balikatan with Quad members or other naval powers who also want to ensure a rules-based approach in the South China Sea, without necessarily adding EDCA sites on land? Can't we add or maintain multilateral exercises on the water without the need to add bilateral sites on land?]

Manila and Washington signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014, which enhances the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty. The EDCA allows United States forces to build and use facilities inside Philippine military bases and camps.

The EDCA also facilitates the annual Balikatan exercises, a military drill between Filipino soldiers and American troops.

READ: PH, US agree to boost American military presence, create 4 new EDCA sites

There are currently five EDCA sites: Cesar Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro, Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, and the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan.

Philippine defense officials earlier identified military bases in Zambales, Cagayan, Isabela, and Palawan - all of which face China, Taiwan, and the Korean Peninsula - as possible additional EDCA locations.

READ: What you need to know about EDCA

For his part, Department of National Defense Officer-in-Charge Carlito Galvez Jr. said the country is leaning towards building multilateral cooperation with other countries.

"On the suggestion of Senator Risa on multilateralism, actually ayan ang way forward natin (actually, that's our way forward) considering that we have only two countries that we have VFA (Visiting Forces Agreement)," he said.

Galvez said the government is looking forward to building a trilateral relationship with the US and Australia, and a reciprocal access agreement (RAA) with Japan.

"We are exploring the possibility of having a trilateral agreement with the US and Australia because we have the VFA. Later, maybe we can have an RAA with Japan," he said. "We are really driving the possibility of expanding those alliance together with South Korea and other like-minded countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and ASEAN."

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. earlier said he is not keen on invoking the MDT with the US despite the recent laser-pointing incident involving China in the West Philippine Sea, noting that such move would only escalate tensions in the area.