REUTERS NOV 3, 2015
MANILA – The Philippine Supreme Court is unlikely to rule on a constitutional challenge to a new U.S.-Philippine security agreement before U.S. President Barack Obama visits Manila later this month. A decision is expected next year, a court source said.
The deal will give U.S. troops wide access to Philippine military bases and approval to build facilities to store fuel and equipment for maritime security, but it was effectively frozen after left-wing politicians and other opponents challenged its constitutionality last year.
With tension growing over China’s island-building in the disputed South China Sea, Philippine political experts had expected the Supreme Court to issue a ruling before Obama attends the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Manila on Nov. 18-19.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed just days before Obama last visited Manila in April 2014.
A court source, who declined to be identified, said domestic political issues are likely to take priority.
“I expect the court to decide on the military deal next year, before the elections in May,” the source said, referring to national elections scheduled for May.
Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te said it is unclear when the court will issue its ruling.
Experts have already said any further delays to the agreement might raise eyebrows in Washington given Manila has been the most vocal critic of Beijing among the claimants to the South China Sea and has urged the United States to push back against China’s territorial ambitions.
Last week a U.S. warship challenged the territorial limits around one of Beijing’s artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago, prompting China’s naval chief to warn that a minor incident could spark war in the South China Sea.
“It is painful to watch a case so vital to Philippine national security mired in judicial indecision,” said Patrick Cronin of the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
To be sure, U.S.-Philippine military ties are already robust.
Philippine military officials say there has been an increase in U.S. exercises, training and ship and aircraft visits in the past year under Obama’s “rebalance” to Asia.
But the EDCA will take the relationship a step further, partly by giving U.S. forces broad access to the Philippines.
“There is no doubt the U.S. will be disappointed. But the process demonstrates judicial independence where due diligence is expected,” said Philippine security expert Rommel Banlaoi.