The Philippines’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States is aimed at improving the country’s defensive capabilities and is not meant for war, Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. said.

In a statement Thursday night, Galvez emphasized that the bilateral agreement does not seek to interfere with the domestic affairs of other nations.

“The geopolitical situation is becoming more precarious by the day. Our projects under EDCA and our other defense partnerships are not intended for aggression. We are not preparing for war, rather we are aiming to develop our defense capabilities against eventualities and threats to our security,” he added.

Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim believes it will be beneficial for all the member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) if the organization takes a common position on the issue of China and the disputed territories in the South China Sea.

Anwar said he and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — who welcomed the visiting Malaysian leader on a two-day official visit that ended Thursday — both believe that the best way to deal with China is to take a position without provoking tension in the region.

The premier said taking a multilateral approach in dealing with Beijing is better since all claimant countries have similar issues with China.

“We did tackle the subject which is quite contentious because of the position we have with China but both of us agree that the mechanism should be bilateral and multilateral to try and engage with the Chinese and to take a position,” he said in an interview with ANC’s Headstart.

Anwar added: “We have to take a common position and then engage with the Chinese because if we take too combative a view, we will not dissolve, we will not ease the tension. So I think let us start first with an option to get the consensus within ASEAN and take a position with the Chinese to suggest that these are our concerns and I think the best route is to get into an amicable resolution to this.”

Meanwhile, an expert from a Japanese think tank on Friday said there is a need for a trilateral defense cooperation among Japan, the Philippines, and the US amid China’s continued aggressive behavior over disputed waters in the South China Sea, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

In a forum organized by Stratbase ADR Institute, Miyake Kunihiko, director of Japan-based thinktank The Canon Institute for Global Studies’ Research, said there is a need for a multi-layer security and maritime policing mechanism involving the three countries. Rey E. Requejo

Miyake said such cooperation is “a natural process,” given the changing security environment in the Indo-Pacific Region. A multilateral military cooperation with Australia is also ideal to maintain the status quo, he added.

Galvez stressed that projects under EDCA are geared towards enhancing facility readiness of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as part of its modernization efforts to speed up external defense development.

“As the Commander-in-Chief, President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. directed the AFP recently, we are shifting our focus towards territorial defense, especially in the West Philippine Sea (WPS),” the DND chief added.

Previous military engagements and exercises with Philippines allies used to focus on internal security operations. “Now, we are eyeing to strengthen our abilities to respond to external threats that may arise along our border-areas,” Galvez said.

He also added that the Department of National Defense is aiming to achieve an optimal number and locations of the EDCA sites to maximize their coverage of the Philippine archipelago.

“We understand the apprehensions expressed by our local chief executives about EDCA and our bilateral exercises. However, we must consider the volatile situation in which we operate and not view our country in isolation,” Galvez added.

“The Philippines straddles a crucial location in the Pacific, and we have seaboards to the north, south, east and west. All of these must be monitored and protected,” he said.

Last month, the DND announced that Manila and Washington DC agreed to designate four new EDCA “agreed locations”.

EDCA, along with the Visiting Forces Agreement, operationalizes the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). It was signed in 2014 but its implementation was delayed due to various reasons.

“EDCA was met with legal challenges, but the Supreme Court eventually upheld its constitutionality in 2016. Coupled with other technical issues, which have since been resolved, and the restrictions brought by the pandemic, the implementation of the projects under EDCA was delayed for many years,” Galvez explained.

He also added that the identification of new sites for additional EDCA “Agreed Locations” is long overdue. Meanwhile, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) shared that projects under EDCA are being prioritized and funded by the US side.

“To date, the United States has allotted and committed a total of USD82.68 million to complete all of these projects,” Foreign Secretary Enrique A. Manalo said during the Senate Committee Hearing on Foreign Relations on March 1.

“These new EDCA locations will allow more rapid response for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, as well as respond to other shared challenges,” he added.

Galvez also noted that undertaking projects under EDCA is one of the DND and AFP’s various efforts to prepare for contingencies in the domestic and regional spheres.

These include responding to natural disasters and calamities, evacuating Filipino citizens in the region whenever needed, undertaking search and rescue operations, and defending against invasion.

“The MDT is founded on the principle of peace and promotion of regional stability. These underpin our activities and projects under EDCA,” Galvez pointed out.

“As a nation, we renounce war as a foreign policy. However, we are committed to exhaust all available means and the resources available to us to defend our national interests,” he added.

The DND chief also emphasized that the Philippines continues to forge ties not only with the United States, but also with friends, allies, and like-minded nations.

“While we are further deepening and seeking ways to modernize our long-standing alliance with the US, we are pursuing engagements with many other like-minded nations. We are hopeful for the continued support of the Filipino people in these endeavors,” Galvez said.

Miyake said: “It’s another natural process because the sea is wide and big, and ships are limited, so it’s pretty natural that instead of one country doing the whole thing, more countries work together to cover as much area as possible.”

“I think it’s in the pipeline, we have to do this in order to maintain the status quo and prevent them from being changed by force. I think it’s a matter of time,” he added.

Doing such cooperation should not worry China unless it has “a bad intention” in the South China Sea, Miyake said in an interview after the forum.

He stressed that what the three—or maybe four—countries would do is only to show that they can do military cooperation in the waters, including joint patrol, while also encouraging Beijing in a dialogue.

“It is not a means to coerce foreign countries. It is a means to send the right message to those who wish to change the status quo by force and not in compliance with the international law. Then they will think twice. What we are doing is natural maritime policing operations. Unless you have a bad intention, you don’t have to worry,” he added.

Meanwhile, political analyst and Stratbase President Dindo Manhit said that the Philippines must strengthen its alliances with states that have vowed to protect the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific.

He noted that Japan and the US as examples as both have consistently supported the Philippines in its 2016 arbitral victory in the West Philippine Sea.

“To effectively respond to security challenges in the maritime domain, working with friends and allies through joint maritime patrols will enforce our national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Filipinos strongly support this, with 80 percent believing that the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard should be prioritized and strengthened. This further validates the strategic importance of alliances and partnerships in safeguarding the West Philippine Sea,” Manhit said.