‘A big deal’: US, Philippines tighten military ties
MANILA, Philippines (AP) – The Philippines said Thursday it was allowing U.S. forces to expand their presence in the Southeast Asian nation. The Biden administration’s latest move strengthens an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China, including in any future confrontation over Taiwan.
Thursday’s agreement, which gives US forces access to four more military camps, was announced during a visit by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. He has led efforts to strengthen regional security partnerships and update the armament and positioning of US and allied forces in Asia in light of China’s increasing military strength and assertiveness over its claims on Taiwan and the South China Sea.
“It’s a big deal,” Austin said at a news conference, while noting that the agreement does not mean the restoration of permanent American bases in the Philippines.
In a televised news conference with his Filipino counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., Austin pledged US military support and said that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the US and Philippines to defend each other in major conflicts, ” for armed troops, attacks on our armed forces, public ships or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.”
“We discussed specific actions to address destabilizing activities in the waters,” Austin said. “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.”
American leaders have long attempted to reframe US foreign policy to better reflect the rise of China as a significant military and economic competitor, and to better deal with the ongoing threat from North Korea.
Tensions between China and Taiwan will be high on the agenda next week when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to meet China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
China claims the self-governing island as its own territory – to take it by force if necessary. Beijing was responding to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosis’ visit to Taiwan last summer by sending warships, bombers, fighter jets and support aircraft into airspace near Taiwan on an almost daily basis, raising concerns about a possible blockade or military action.
The announcement from the Philippines follows Austin’s announcement with South Korean leaders on Tuesday that the US would send more fighter jets and bombers, and his January 11 statement to Japanese counterparts that the US would shift its deployment there to create a more nimble force. There were other announcements from the Biden administration on arms, drills and pacts, including a 2021 decision to provide nuclear submarines to Australia.
China’s threat to international order is “unprecedented,” US and Japanese diplomats and defense chiefs said after the deal. “This behavior is of grave concern to the Alliance and the wider international community and represents the greatest strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said strengthening the US military in the region is escalating tensions and jeopardizing peace and stability. “Regional countries must remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the US,” Mao told reporters at a daily briefing.
U.S. and Filipino officials also said “substantial” 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 bases has been underway for years but has been hampered by unspecified local problems.
China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, are locked in increasingly tense territorial disputes over the busy and resource-rich South China Sea. Washington lays no claim to the strategic waters, but has used its warships and fighter and surveillance aircraft for patrols, which it says promote freedom of navigation and the rule of law, but have infuriated Beijing.
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.
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.
Galvez, the Philippine defense chief, declined to specify the location of the four additional camps, saying the announcement would come after discussions with surrounding communities.
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 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 are located along the country’s west coast, including in the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, which face the disputed South China Sea.
Austin is the latest senior American official to travel to the Philippines following Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit in November, a sign of warming ties after a strained 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.”
Knickmeyer reported from Washington. Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan in Manila, Philippines and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok, Thailand contributed to this report.