The United States and the Philippines on Thursday unveiled an agreement allowing American soldiers access to four additional bases in the Southeast Asian country which seeks, like its longtime ally, to counter the rise military from China.
Washington and Manila agreed to extend an existing agreement to include four new sites “in strategic regions of the country”, during a visit to the Philippines by US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.
“The Philippines and the United States are proud to announce their plans to accelerate full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the decision to designate four new agreed sites in strategic regions of the country,” U.S. and Filipino officials said in a joint statement.
Talks were underway over a possible fifth base, a senior Filipino official told AFP earlier.
The two countries have been security allies for several decades, including through a 2014 defense treaty and pact, known by the acronym EDCA, which allows US soldiers access to five Philippine bases but also to store military equipment and materials there.
With this new announcement, the United States will have access to at least nine military bases in the Philippines.
The United States is seeking to strengthen its ties with Manila, which have been strained in recent years. Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had preferred to turn to China to the detriment of Washington, a former colonizer of the Philippines, but the new government of Ferdinand Marcos Jr wanted to reverse this.
Beijing’s reassertion of claims to Taiwan and the construction of Chinese bases in the South China Sea have pushed Washington and Manila to strengthen their partnership.
Given Taiwan’s proximity, Philippine cooperation would be key in the event of a conflict with Beijing. A four-star US Air Force general recently predicted that such a clash could occur as early as 2025.
The new places that Washington will be able to access have not been identified. But according to numerous sources, most of these new bases are located on the main island of the archipelago, Luzon, the Philippine region closest to Taiwan, where the United States already has access to two sites.
According to reports, one of the additional bases is on the island of Palawan (west) – where Washington already has an accessible place – which faces the Spratly Islands, located in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
During a meeting with President Marcos at the presidential palace, the head of the Pentagon called Manila a “key” ally of the United States.
Austin said Washington would continue to help “strengthen and modernize” the Philippines’ military assets and increase cooperation between the two armies.
Washington is seeking to consolidate its alliances with other states to counter China’s rapid military advances, including through its “AUKUS” alliance with Australia and the United Kingdom.
Australia has agreed to increase its military exchanges with the United States, and Japan is planning joint exercises with the two countries.
President Marcos is seeking to maintain a balance vis-à-vis Beijing and Washington, but has still insisted that he will not let Beijing trample on Manila’s maritime rights.
A senior US defense official told reporters on Wednesday that the Philippines was “under daily pressure from (China) in ways that violate international law.”
The United States wants to make sure “it has the means to defend its own sovereignty,” the official said.
Some 500 US troops are currently in the Philippines, with more moving within the country on joint exercises throughout the year.
Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea and flouts a judgment in The Hague that its claims have no legal basis.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei also claim parts of these waters.
Beijing also sees the democratic island of Taiwan as part of its territory to be reclaimed one day, if necessary by force.
“Looking at the location of the proposed locations, it seems pretty clear that these sites are related to (a possible incident) in Taiwan,” said Greg Wyatt of PSA Philippines Consultancy.
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