The United States and the Philippines announced an agreement on Friday to give US troops access to four other bases in the Southeast Asian country as longtime allies try to counter China’s military buildup.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of the United States signed an agreement to increase collaboration in “strategic regions of the country” during his visit.
It comes at a time when countries are trying to mend ties that have been broken in recent years. The Marcos government in the Philippines has sought to reverse the policies of former president Rodrigo Duterte, who supported China over the country’s former colonial master.
Washington and Manila’s relationship has been given additional fuel by Beijing’s escalating aggression in Taiwan and its construction of bases in the disputed South China Sea.
Considering the proximity of Taiwan and the waterways around it, Philippine assistance would be crucial in the case of a battle with China, which a four-star US Air Force general has warned may occur as early as 2025.
Austin told reporters on Friday that with the addition of these four bases, the total number of bases accessible to the US military rises to nine. A high-ranking Philippine official confirmed to AFP that negotiations were taking on about a possible tenth meeting.
The United States reopened its embassy in the Solomon Islands after a 30-year absence, putting it in direct conflict with China for influence in the South Pacific.
There has been a mutual defence treaty between the United States and the Philippines for decades, and in 2014 the two countries signed an agreement to increase their security cooperation known as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This agreement allows American troops to rotate through five Philippine bases, some of which are located near disputed waters.
It also makes it possible for the United States military to keep supplies and weapons for the defense at certain locations. After progress on the EDCA slowed under Duterte, Marcos has made efforts to hasten the process forward.
Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Gálvez told reporters that the location of the new sites would be made public after consultation with local communities and officials.
But it has been widely reported that most of the sites are on the main island of Luzon – the closest Philippine mainland to Taiwan – where the United States already has access to two bases. The fourth is reported to be on the western island of Palawan, off the Spratly Islands in the disputed South China Sea, bringing the number of sites to two.
Austin asserted that the allies have pledged to “strengthen our mutual capabilities to resist armed attacks” while accusing China of making “illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.” Manila refers to the waters immediately to the country’s west as the West Philippine Sea.
On Thursday, Beijing responded that Washington was exacerbating “regional tensions” by continually beefing up its military deployment. The United States is also trying to bolster alliances with other nations to counter China’s rapid military advances, including its AUKUS partnership with Australia and Britain.
Australia has agreed to step up the pace of military interactions with Washington, while Japan plans to hold joint exercises with both countries. Although Marcos has tried to find a balance between China and the United States, he has insisted that he will not allow Beijing to trample on Manila’s maritime rights.
Some 500 US servicemen are currently in the Philippines, with others rotating around the country for joint exercises when necessary.
Protest against the EDCA
The US military presence has long been a sensitive issue in the Philippines. On Friday, a hundred protesters gathered in front of the country’s military headquarters to demand that the EDCA be eliminated.
The United States previously had two major bases in its former colony, but in 1991 the Senate voted to terminate the lease following growing nationalist sentiment. Beijing claims sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea and has ignored a ruling from The Hague declaring its claims without legal basis. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei also claim overlapping sea parts. China also claims Taiwan’s democratic self-rule as part of its territory, which it will one day reclaim by force if necessary.
“If you look at the location of the proposed sites, it seems pretty clear that they are related to a contingency in Taiwan,” says Greg Wyatt of PSA Philippines Consultancy.