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Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a foreign policy and security analyst specializing on Southeast Asian affairs, maritime security, connectivity and great power competition in the region and a member of the South China Sea NewsWire Advisory Board. This interview was conducted on April 13, 2024.

1. Now that the U.S. and the Philippines are engaged in the renewed Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (“EDCA”), how is this relationship translating in terms of helping the Philippines in their standoff with China in their EEZ?

The EDCA will facilitate the rotational deployment of U.S. troops and the prepositioning of supplies to nine agreed locations across the Philippines. Granting such expanded strategic access to the U.S. is seen as possibly contributing to Manila’s defense posture. It is seen as a pushback and counterweight to China’s growing military presence and activities in the country’s maritime zones. The hope is that it may deter further Chinese incursions in the country’s vast maritime domain. EDCA may help the alliance respond to contingencies, whether natural disasters or external security threats. It may support Philippines’ military and coast guard modernization through the training of Filipino troops to react to various challenges, increasing interoperability to work alongside allies and partners, and upgrading the country’s arsenal via arms transfer.

2. Some critics suggest that salvaged U.S. Navy vessels and old cargo aircraft are not helping address China’s gray zone threats. What is needed from the U.S.?

There has been some discussion on updating the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty as it fails to account for gray zone operations below the high threshold of “armed attack.” So far, firmer rhetorical reiterations of U.S. commitment have yet to discourage China’s illicit and disruptive activities in Philippine territories and waters in its western EEZ. The sale or donation of vintage arms plays into criticisms of U.S. military assistance being clunkers coming in too late, too little. Washington should consider transferring more serviceable or refurbished assets with intact key systems and equipment. With the war in Ukraine draining U.S. inventory and deliveries to Taiwan behind schedule, there is concern about whether U.S. capacity can keep up with the demand, more so extend material help to other allies in need.

As the U.S. tries to revitalize its shipbuilding capacity to meet China’s growing naval and coast guard fleets, now the world’s largest by headcount, it should support the shipbuilding capacity of allies, including the Philippines. U.S. private financial firm Cerberus forestalled Chinese interest in acquiring the bankrupt former Hanjin shipyard in Subic. More can be done to turn the enterprise around and return it to its glory days when it propelled the country to become the world’s fourth-largest shipbuilding nation. Companies from allied countries like South Korea’s Hyundai also expressed interest in moving into the facility.

With Japan relaxing restrictions to transfer military equipment abroad and South Korea becoming the fastest-growing arms exporter with ambitions to become the world’s fourth-largest arms exporter by 2027, Washington can support the Philippines’ Self-Reliant Defense Program. U.S. capital and technology can help the country boost its domestic capacity to meet its growing security needs, including in the production of firearms, ammunition, armor, or even police and military transport. It is a long-term contribution to the country’s defense.

3. What are your views on the prospects of maritime cooperation between the Philippines and Vietnam?

Despite their differences in the South China Sea (“SCS”), there is much scope for maritime cooperation between the two countries. Vietnam was the first country visited by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. this year, and the maritime row was on the agenda. Both sides signed an agreement on incident prevention and management. As two frontline claimants, both express concern and solidarity during sea incidents involving China. President Marcos also took note of Hanoi’s interest in pursuing a joint submission for an extended continental shelf (“ECS”) in the SCS. In 2009, Manila was approached but declined to participate in the joint ECS submission by Vietnam and Malaysia in the SCS. In 2005, the national oil companies of the Philippines, Vietnam, and China did joint exploration in the disputed sea, but Manila withdrew from the project due to domestic political backlash, and the next government expressed no interest in continuing the undertaking. A Supreme Court ruling declaring the project unconstitutional may constrain future Manila’s interest in the same. There is scope for exploring functional cooperation with other SCS coastal states, such as coordinating annual fishing bans, joint marine scientific research, marine environment conservation, and joint training and drills to respond to disasters, maritime pollution, and oil spills.

4. Is there any movement on the renewed talks or immediate plans to jumpstart the Joint Oceanographic Science Marine Research Explorations (“JOMSRE”) between the two nations? What signal would this send to China?

In 2021, both sides expressed interest in resuming JOMSRE, but there has been little reported progress on it since then.

5. What is the most pressing and major challenge facing the Philippines in the South China Sea in 2024?

Philippines’ transparency initiative and outreach to allies and partners drew strong reaction from China. Given its contempt for internationalizing the long-running maritime spat and the intervention of non-resident maritime powers, Beijing is doubling down on its pressure against Manila. China wants to dissuade Manila from persisting and inducing it to change course. It also wants to discourage other claimants from following suit. The live-streamed and broadcasted sea incidents raised stakes for both sides. Neither wants to back down and both are digging in. Joint sails or patrols in the SCS will elicit Chinese response, and the presence of more vessels and aircraft in the congested space may increase the risk of accidents and miscalculations. Some also expressed concern about policy continuity in the U.S. with the November election approaching and the myriad security and foreign policy issues on Washington’s plate.

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