MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippines said Thursday it is allowing U.S. forces to expand their footprint in the Southeast Asian country, the latest move by the Biden administration to strengthen an alliance of military allies in the Indo-Pacific to counter Better challenge China, including. future confrontation on Taiwan.
Thursday’s deal, which allows U.S. forces to move to four more military bases, was announced during a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. He has led efforts to strengthen regional security partnerships and modernize the armament and deployment of US and allied forces in Asia in the face of China’s growing military might and its assertiveness over its claims to Taiwan and the South China Sea..
“This is a big deal,” Austin said at a news conference, noting that the deal does not mean reestablishing permanent US bases in the Philippines.
In a televised press conference with his Filipino counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., Austin pledged U.S. military support, saying the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which obliges the U.S. and the Philippines to defend each other in major conflicts, “is applies to armed forces. Attacks on any of our armed forces, public vessels or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.”
“We discussed concrete actions to address the unstable activities in the water,” Austin said. “This is part of our effort to renew our partnership, and these efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.”
American leaders have long sought to reorient US foreign policy to better reflect China’s rise as an important military and economic rival, as well as better confronting the persistent threats of North Korea.
The conflict between China and Taiwan will be on the agenda next week when US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken meets with the new Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
China claims the self-governing island as its own territory – it will take it by force if necessary. Beijing responded to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last summer. by sending warships, bombers, fighter jets and support aircraft into the skies near Taiwan on an almost daily basis, raising concerns of a potential blockade or military action.
The announcement from the Philippines comes after Austin’s announcement with South Korean leaders on Tuesday that the US would send more fighter jets and bombers, and his January 11 announcement with Japanese partners that the US would change its deployment there to create a more flexible fighting force. Other announcements by the Biden administration include weapons, exercises and contracts, including a 2021 decision to supply nuclear-powered submarines to Australia.
China’s threat to the international order was “unprecedented,” US and Japanese diplomats and defense chiefs said after the deal. “This move is a serious concern for the alliance and the entire international community, and represents the biggest strategic challenge in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said that the strengthening of the US military in the region increases the tension and endangers peace and stability. “Countries in the region must remain vigilant and refrain from coercing or exploiting the United States,” Mao told reporters at a daily briefing.
US and Filipino officials also said that “significant” progress had been made on projects at five Philippine military bases, which were previously authorized by US military personnel by Philippine officials. Construction of American facilities at those bases has been under way for years but has been stalled by unexplained local issues.
China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, are locked in increasingly bitter territorial disputes over the busy and rich South China Sea. Washington has no claim to the strategic waters, but has deployed its warships and fighter and surveillance aircraft for patrols it says promote freedom of navigation and the rule of law but have angered 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 treaty ally in Asia.
“I have always said that it seems to me that the future of the Philippines and for that matter the Asia-Pacific will always involve the United States because those partnerships are so strong,” Marcos told Austin.
Several left-wing activists staged a loud demonstration on Thursday and burned a mock-up American flag outside the main military camp where Austin met his Filipino counterpart. While the two countries are allies, left-wing and nationalist groups have resented the US military presence in this former American colony and have often protested violently.
The country used to host two of the largest US Navy and Air Force bases outside the US. The bases were closed in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but US forces later returned for large-scale military exercises with Filipino troops.
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent deployment of foreign troops and their involvement in local conflicts. The countries’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Treaty allows visiting US forces to remain indefinitely in rotating units at bases and other buildings they build in designated Philippine camps with their own defense equipment, except for nuclear weapons.
Galvez, the Philippine defense chief, declined to give the location of the other four camps, saying the announcement would come after talks with surrounding communities.
Philippine military and defense officials said in November that the United States had searched five other regional military bases, mostly in the northern Philippines’ Luzon region.
Two of the camps the US wanted to reach are in Cagayan province near the northern island of Luzon, on the maritime border with Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait and southern China. Other camps are located along the country’s western coast, including in the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, which face the disputed South China Sea.
Austin is the latest high-ranking US official to visit the Philippines after Vice President Kamala Harris visited in November, in a sign of warming ties after a tense period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte has maintained good relations with China and Russia and at one point backed off threats to cut ties with Washington, withdraw US forces and cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement, which allows thousands of US troops to participate in large-scale military exercises each year.
“I am confident that we will work together to protect our shared values of freedom, democracy and human dignity,” Austin said. “As you said before, the United States and the Philippines are more than allies. We are family.”
Knickmeyer reported from Washington. Associated Press reporters Joeal Calupitan in Manila, Philippines, and Kiko Rosario in Bangkok, Thailand contributed to this report.