MANILA – The Philippine Supreme Court on Tuesday declared a security deal with the United States constitutional, as anti-American protesters rallied outside, allowing an increased U.S. military presence in the former U.S. colony as tension rises in the South China Sea.
Manila has long been a staunch U.S. ally and the pact is widely seen as important for both sides as the Philippines confronts an assertive China in the disputed Spratly archipelago and Washington launches a “pivot” back to Asia.
The court voted 10-4 to deny the petition of some lawmakers and activists to declare the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) unconstitutional because it surrendered Philippine sovereignty to a foreign power.
“EDCA is not constitutionally infirm,” said Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te. “As an executive agreement, it remains consistent with existing laws and treaties that it purports to implement.”
The pact was signed days before U.S. President Barack Obama visited the Philippines in 2014. It will allow U.S. troops to build facilities to store equipment for maritime security and humanitarian and disaster response operations, in addition to broad access to Philippine military bases.
However, it faced immediate legal challenges from groups opposed to U.S. military involvement in the Philippines, an American colony from 1898 to 1946.
The Philippines hosted two of the largest overseas U.S. military bases until 1992, following a Filipino Senate vote to end their leases that was influenced by anti-U.S. sentiment.
The Philippines and the United States are already bound by a mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 and a visiting forces agreement signed in 1998.
The first accord commits the United States to come to the aid of the Philippines in case of external aggression, while the second paved the way for U.S. troops to engage in exercises in the Southeast Asian nation.
The new pact, which was only intended to be in place for 10 years from 2014, does not authorize a return of U.S. bases.
Security expert Rommel Banlaoi said the security deal will strengthen the alliance between Manila and Washington beyond the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, who steps down at the end of June.
“EDCA will be Aquino’s legacy for the next administration that is bound to implement it,” Banlaoi said. “It can boost U.S. leverage in balancing China, particularly in the context of the growing U.S.-China power struggle in the South China Sea.”
The court ruling came hours before the Philippine defense and foreign ministers was to hold talks with American counterparts in Washington, discussing security and economic issues, including the South China Sea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
Dozens of anti-U.S. activists held protests outside the court, saying the ruling was “untenable” because the deal was a de facto basing agreement and will make the country “a launching pad for military intervention in the region.”
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 pact would take the relationship a step further.
China claims almost all the South China Sea, which is believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas, and has been building up facilities on islands it controls.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan and the Philippines also have claims. Tension rose this month when China began test flights on Fiery Cross Reef, one of three artificial islands where Beijing has constructed airfields.
In April 2012, after a tense standoff with Philippine ships, Chinese vessels took control of a shoal just 220 km (135 miles) off the main Philippine island of Luzon.
The Philippines has since become the most vocal critic of China’s efforts to claim South China Sea territory, including its strategy of turning islets in those waters into artificial islands that can host military facilities.