US to widen military presence in Philippines amid China fear
MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The United States and the Philippines on Thursday announced with the US an expansion of the American military presence in the Southeast Asian country
MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The United States and the Philippines on Thursday announced an expansion of the American military presence in the Southeast Asian country, with US forces being granted access to four more military camps, effectively giving Washington new capabilities to deter counter-attacks to strengthen China.
The agreement between the longtime allies was released during the visit of US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, who has spearheaded efforts to strengthen US security alliances in Asia amid China’s increasing assertiveness over Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The allies also said “significant” progress was being made on projects at five Philippine military bases to which U.S. service members were previously granted access by Filipino officials. Construction of American facilities at these sites has been ongoing for years but has been hampered by unspecified local problems.
Austin thanked President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., whom he met briefly in Manila, for allowing the US military to expand its presence in the Philippines, Washington’s oldest Asian contractor.
“I’ve always said that it seems to me that the future of the Philippines and Asia Pacific must always involve the United States simply because these partnerships are so strong,” Marcos told Austin.
American leaders have long attempted to reframe US foreign policy to better reflect China’s rise as a major military and economic competitor.
Thursday’s announcement comes as tensions between China and Taiwan have increased. China claims the self-governing island as its own territory — to be taken by force if necessary — and Beijing has sent warships, bombers, warplanes and support planes into airspace near Taiwan on an almost daily basis, raising concerns about a possible blockade or military action.
China and the Philippines have also been locked in increasingly tense territorial disputes over the busy and resource-rich South China Sea, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Washington makes no claims in the strategic waters but has used its warships and fighter and surveillance planes on patrols it says promote freedom of navigation and the rule of law but have infuriated Beijing.
In a televised news conference with his Filipino counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., Austin pledged the support of the US military and said that the 1951 Treaty of Mutual Defense, which obliges the US and the Philippines to defend each other in major conflicts, “Armed troops include attacks on our armed forces, public ships or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.”
“We discussed specific actions to address destabilizing activity in the waters,” Austin said without elaborating. “This is part of our efforts to modernize our alliance, and these efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to assert its illegitimate claims in the Western Philippine Sea.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning on Thursday accused the US of pursuing “its selfish agenda” with the new deal. Beijing has long criticized US-Philippine military cooperation as an attempt to curb its growing influence.
“The US has maintained a Cold War zero-sum mentality and increased military action in the region,” Mao told reporters at a daily briefing. “This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and threatens peace and stability in the region.”
In their press conference, Austin and Galvez declined to provide further details about the agreement. The US defense chief said this does not mean the restoration of permanent American bases, but noted that “it’s a big deal”.
Galvez said further consultations are needed, including with local officials in provinces where visiting U.S. forces would establish a presence at Philippine military camps.
A few dozen left-wing activities staged a loud protest on Thursday, lighting a mock US flag in front of the main military camp where Austin was holding talks with his Filipino counterpart. While the two countries are allies, left-wing groups and nationalists have resisted, and often vigorously protested, the US military presence in this former American colony.
The country was formerly home to two of the largest US Navy and Air Force bases outside of mainland America. The bases closed in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but American forces later returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops.
The Philippine constitution prohibits the permanent deployment of foreign troops and their involvement in local fighting. The countries’ expanded defense cooperation agreement allows American armed forces and their defense equipment, with the exception of nuclear weapons, to remain indefinitely in rotating batches in barracks and other buildings they construct in designated Philippine camps.
Philippine military and defense officials said in November the US had sought access to five other local military camps, mostly in the northern Philippine region of Luzon.
Two of the additional camps the US wanted access to are in Cagayan province near the northern tip of Luzon Island, across a maritime border from Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait and southern China. Other camps that would house American forces are located along the country’s west coast, including in the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, which face the disputed South China Sea.
“The Philippine-US alliance has stood the test of time and remains steadfast,” the allies said in their statement. “We look forward to the opportunities these new locations will create to expand our collaboration.”
Austin is the latest senior American official to travel to the Philippines after Vice President Kamala Harris visited her in November to strengthen ties after a tense period under Marcos’ predecessor Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte had maintained close ties with China and Russia, at one point threatening to sever ties with Washington, expel American forces and cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows thousands of American forces to come out for large-scale combat exercises each year.
“I am confident that we will continue to work together to defend our shared values of liberty, democracy and human dignity,” Austin said. “As you’ve heard me say before, the United States and the Philippines are more than just allies. We are a family.”
Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan in Manila, Philippines and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok, Thailand contributed to this report.
Jim Gomez, The Associated Press