The Philippines has agreed to grant US forces access to four more of the country’s military bases as Washington and its oldest Asian ally boost efforts to jointly push back against aggression from China.
Philippine secretary of national defence Carlito Galvez and US defence secretary Lloyd Austin have, however, refused to identify the bases, in a sign that Manila’s desire to keep relations with Beijing stable could still obstruct the plans.
“This is not about permanent basing, but it is a big deal, it is a really big deal,” Austin said, thanking Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos Jr for approving US military access to the sites under the two countries’ enhanced defence co-operation agreement (EDCA). “This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, to increase interoperability.”
Since the Philippine Senate blocked the extension of a bilateral military bases agreement in 1991, the US has not had bases of its own in the country. The 2014 EDCA allowed US forces to pre-position equipment and rotate forces in Philippine military bases, but Marcos’s predecessor Rodrigo Duterte suspended implementation to pursue closer ties with China.
A senior US official said the move had been a “priority” for the Biden administration. “This effort has had high-level White House attention and [is] part of our strategic effort across the region,” the official added.
Since Marcos took office last July, he has revived the defence relationship with Washington amid concerns over China challenging Philippine control of disputed islands in the South China Sea and the risk that the Philippines could become part of the battlefield if China attacked Taiwan.
The US and the Philippines remained “committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack”, Austin said. “These efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the [South China Sea].”
Galvez and Austin said the two countries were also working to step up the secure exchange of information between their defence establishments and increase combined training. The plans come as the US and several of its allies in the region are escalating joint planning and training to cope with China’s growing military power.
Lisa Curtis, an Indo-Pacific expert at the CNAS think-tank in Washington, said the Philippines’ position in the first island chain off the Asian mainland was critical to the entire US alliance system in the Indo-Pacific. In the case of a conflict over Taiwan, “Washington would almost certainly look to Manila as a staging ground for logistics support and US forces”, she added.
However, as highlighted by Marcos’s visit to China this month, Manila is also trying to maintain relations with Beijing.
In November, a senior Philippine military official said two new EDCA sites would be in Cagayan, a province neighbouring Taiwan which includes islands in the critical Bashi Channel. The official added that Palawan, an island in the South China Sea close to the disputed Spratlys, and Subic Bay, home to a former US naval base, were also under discussion.
The Pentagon said the new sites would be in “strategic areas”.
But Galvez said the administration wanted to conclude consultations with local governments before making public the locations. Philippine military officials and defence experts said some government officials were worried news of the locations would anger China.
“If the government still allows China’s views to influence the country’s determination of its national interest, then all sites and US involvement in the process, are controversial,” said Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong, a professor at the Ateneo School of Government in Manila and former vice-commander of the Philippine navy.
“Cagayan is critical, because we have observed PRC interest in that area well before the EDCA sites were discussed. Subic, Zambales is likewise critical,” he added, pointing to attempts by Chinese companies to gain control of islands in the Bashi Channel and near Subic four years ago.
Marcos will also travel to Japan next week as Manila and Tokyo expand their security co-operation.
Beijing has expressed concerns about Marcos’s visit to Japan, according to two people familiar with the discussions, underscoring the challenge the Philippines faces as it tries to balance its economic interests with China and relationship with the US and its allies.
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