MANILA, -- The Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the Philippines and the United States.
In its first en banc session for the year, the high tribunal affirmed the validity of the pact that provided for the increased rotational presence of US troops in the country.
The EDCA was upheld by a vote of 10 in favor, four against and one taking no part.
Under EDCA, the US will be allowed to build structures, store as well as preposition weapons, defense supplies and materiel, station troops, civilian personnel and defense contractors, transit and station vehicles, vessels, and aircraft for a period of 10 years.
The constitutionality of the pact was upheld amid an ongoing dispute between the Philippines and China due to overlapping claims in the South China Sea.
The US has also expressed its opposition to China's claims in the disputed waters, citing the need for freedom of navigation in the area.
China's claims, based on a unilateral nine-dash-line map, is now the subject of a Philippine case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
‘EDCA not a treaty’
According to SC spokesman Theodore Te, the high court upheld the agreement's constitutionality "on the ground of Article 18, Section 25 of the Constitution, which allows the President to enter in an executive agreement on foreign military bases if it is not an instrument that allows foreign military bases or it aims to implement existing law or treaty holding that EDCA is one such agreement."
The SC ruled that the President had the power to enter into executive agreements, which the tribunal said are "different from treaties. This is well-recognized and long upheld by the court."
The high court stressed that the defense pact is "is not the instrument that allows troops to enter, as the Visiting Forces Agreement has already done that."
The SC denied the petitions filed separately by former senators Rene Saguisag and Wigberto Tañada, and by another group composed of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan and incumbent and former members of the House of Representatives.
In their petition, Saguisag and Tañada both claimed EDCA's terms and provisions were “lopsided in favor of the Americans.”
The second batch of petitioners, meanwhile, said the EDCA went against the Philippines' national interest, is disadvantageous to Filipinos, and is mainly motivated by the US strategic re-balancing towards Asia and is therefore in the service of US security and economic interests.
De facto US bases?
The petitioners warned that the EDCA would grant the US “carte blanche power to establish and operate de facto military bases anywhere on Philippine soil, minus the cost of paying for one.”
They also said the agreement would be a mere implementation of policies enshrined in the PHL-US Mutual Defense Treaty — a treaty whose constitutionality is being challenged for the first time before the high court with Saguisag and Tañada's petition.
President Benigno Aquino III earlier expressed confidence that the EDCA, signed in April 2014 in time for Obama's first visit to Manila, can stand legal scrutiny even if it is challenged before the Supreme Court.
US welcomes SC ruling
Shortly after the high tribunal's announcement, the US Embassy in Manila released a statement lauding the development.
"The US welcomes the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which will further strengthen the U.S.-Philippine bilateral relationship," the statement read.
"EDCA is a mutually beneficial agreement that will enhance our ability to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and help build capacity for the Armed Forces of the Philippines. We look forward to working closely with our Philippine partners on the implementation of this agreement," it added.
Balikatan 2015 Combined Arms and Live Fire Exercise (CALFEX), troops from the Philippine Marine Corps and US Marine Corps conducted live fire maneuver exercise as part of the Final Exercise (FINEX)
Philippine Army soldiers assigned to the 7th Infantry Division conduct familiarization training using a UH-60 Black Hawk with U.S. Soldiers assigned to 1st Battalion, 27th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, at Fort Magsaysay, Philippines, April 16, 2015.