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.
But critics protesting the decision worried the move may provoke China, and that the brunt of any conflict would be felt in the Philippines. Dozens of anti-U.S. activists in Manila argued the agreement was a de facto basing agreement and will make the country "a launching pad for military intervention in the region."
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."
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called it a "very important decision" as he and U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter began talks with their Philippine counterparts on security and economic issues, including tensions in the South China Sea and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.
"The United States has an iron-clad commitment to the security of the Philippines," Kerry said in opening remarks. "To that end we welcome the Philippines Supreme Court's decision ... (and) look forward to implementing this accord," he added.
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.
Security expert Rommel Banlaoi said the security deal will strengthen the alliance between Manila and Washington beyond the administration of President Benigno Aquino, 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 told Reuters. "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."
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.
Al Jazeera and Reuters