MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday declared as constitutional a defense pact that allows American forces, warships and planes to temporarily base in local military camps, in a boost to U.S. efforts to reassert its presence in Asia as China rises to regional dominance.
Ten of the 15 members of the high court also ruled that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was signed by U.S. and Philippine officials in 2014 and has a 10-year lifespan, is an executive agreement that does not need Senate approval, court spokesman Theodore Te said.
"EDCA is not constitutionally infirm as an executive agreement," Te said at a news conference after the justices' long-awaited vote.
The ruling will bolster U.S. efforts to reassert its presence in Asia and dovetails with Philippine efforts to harness America's help in addressing China's aggressive acts in the disputed South China Sea.
Washington immediately welcomed the court's decision, saying the defense pact is a mutually beneficial accord that will bolster both countries' ability to respond to disasters and strengthen the Philippines' military.
Left-wing activists said they would consider filing an appeal, adding that U.S. military presence won't solve the country's worries over China in the disputed waters.
"This is another sad day for Philippine sovereignty," said left-wing activist Renato Reyes, who was one of those who challenged the legality of the defense accord before the high court. "We maintain that the EDCA is not the solution to the problems of China's incursions."
The Department of Foreign Affairs said that with the court's decision, the Philippines and the U.S. can finalize the full implementation of an agreement that is a critical component of efforts to strengthen national security and disaster relief capabilities.
"This decision bodes well for deepening our defense cooperation with a key ally," and will "redound to improving our capability to perform our mandate to protect our people and secure the state," said armed forces chief Gen. Hernando Iriberri.
The court decision came ahead of high-level U.S.-Philippine talks Tuesday in Washington on defense, security and economic cooperation. Speaking ahead of the talks, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario welcomed the ruling.
"Both the United States and the Philippines recognize the importance of the EDCA as an important security component in our treaty alliance," del Rosario told The Associated Press.
The Philippines has turned to Washington as it scrambles to strengthen its military, one of the most ill-equipped in Asia, to deal with an increasingly assertive China in the South China Sea.
Presidential spokesman Herminio Coloma said the court's ruling boosts the ongoing military modernization program, and will introduce the armed forces to the "most modern equipment," which will allow "a generational leap in our abilities."
The long-simmering disputes involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have escalated in recent years. Tensions have been especially high since Beijing transformed seven disputed reefs into islands on which it is now constructing runways and facilities that rival claimants say can be used militarily in an already very tense region.
Nearly a century of U.S. military presence in the Philippines ended in 1992 when Americans shut their bases, including the largest military facilities outside the U.S. mainland, after Filipino senators voted a year earlier not to renew the lease on the bases amid a tide of nationalism.
A resurgent territorial dispute with China in the mid-1990s, however, prompted Manila to reach out to Washington. In 1998, the U.S. and the Philippines signed the Visiting Forces Agreement, allowing large numbers of American forces to return to the country for joint military exercises each year.
The 2014 defense pact allows the Americans to stay in facilities within Philippine military camps, where they can also station warships and fighter jets in a presence that Filipino officials hope will serve as a deterrent against Chinese aggression in disputed territories.
At least eight local camps have been designated as harboring areas for the Americans, including some located near the South China Sea and in areas prone to natural disasters, according to the Philippine military.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila and Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.