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MANILA: The Philippines has granted the US expanded access to its military bases, its defense chiefs announced Thursday, giving American forces a strategic base at a time of rising tensions over the disputed South China Sea and self-governing Taiwan.
Manila and Washington agreed to accelerate full implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement for joint training and exercises, allowing US access to four additional locations in strategic areas of the Philippines.
The US now has access to a total of nine military sites in the Southeast Asian country.
The move, announced during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippine capital, aims to boost bilateral cooperation to support the Philippines’ defense capabilities and address the pressing security threats in the region, the Philippine official said Secretary of Defense Carlito Galvez during their joint press conference.
“We will continue to work together with partner countries to maintain a stable, rules-based, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” he told reporters.
“We are firmly opposed to unilateral action or attempts to disrupt the current world order and share the same view that all countries should resolve any issues peacefully and abide by international law.”
Austin said the expansion will allow U.S. and Philippine forces to work together more efficiently from key locations in the Philippines.
“America’s commitment to defending the Philippines is unwavering,” he added.
“Our alliance makes our two democracies more secure and helps maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
He and Galvez also discussed ways to address “destabilizing activities” in Philippine waters, including in the South China Sea.
“This effort is especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to assert its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” Austin said, referring to another name for the disputed waters.
With a recent surge in Chinese activity in the region, Manila increased its military presence in the region in December after reports that China had begun seizing unoccupied tracts of land in Philippine waters.
The U.S. Department of State announced that it is committing more than $82 million to Philippine military base infrastructure and investments.
While Austin said the US “does not seek a permanent base in the Philippines,” Arsenio Andolong, spokesman for the Philippines’ defense ministry, told Arab News the number of joint exercises will increase.
“The existing exercises that we already have with them will be expanded in terms of scope and number of participants… There will be more troops participating in the exercises,” he said.
Though signed nearly a decade ago, progress on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement stalled during the years of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who distanced the Philippines from the US in favor of Beijing.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June and has since met with both US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, appears to be taking a more balanced approach.
At a meeting Thursday morning, he told Austin he could not see a future for his country without his longtime ally.
“The future of the Philippines and Asia-Pacific will always have to involve the United States,” he said.