Philippines grants US access to more military sites amid tensions over Taiwan
The Philippines has given the United States access to four new military sites where the U.S. can build facilities as part of the defense agreement between the two nations and amid warnings a Chinese attack on Taiwan is imminent.
The announcement was made by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr. as they met for a meeting to boost defense ties between the allies bound by a Mutual Defense Treaty dating back to 1951.
The Philippine defense department has refused to identify the four sites, pending consultation with local government units. The additional four areas now put the total number of sites accessible to the U.S. to nine.
“Today, the Philippines and the United States are proud to announce their plans to accelerate the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the agreement to designate four new agreed Locations in strategic areas of the country and the substantial completion of the projects in the existing five agreed Locations,” the U.S. and Philippines defense departments said in a statement.
“The EDCA is a key pillar of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training exercises, and interoperability between our forces,” they added.
The EDCA, which was signed in 2014, supplements the Visiting Forces Agreement, a 1999 bilateral pact that provides the legal cover for large-scale joint military exercises between the U.S. and Philippines, Washington’s longtime defense ally in the contested South China Sea region.
The U.S. has allocated over $82 million for infrastructure investments at the existing five sites under the EDCA, the defense departments said.
The five agreed locations are the Cesar Basa Air Base and Fort Magsaysay in the provinces of Pampanga and Nueva Ecija, three hours north of the capital Manila; the Antonio Bautista Air Base and Benito Ebuen Air Base in the central provinces of Palawan and Cebu; and the Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro city in the south.
“Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities,” the statement added.
The new sites would also allow “more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters” in the Southeast Asian country.
In November 2022, then military chief Bartolome Bacarro mentioned the possible locations of new EDCA sites: Cagayan and Isabela – both in the northern Philippines near Taiwan; one in Palawan near the South China Sea, and one in Zambales, a coastal province near the Scarborough Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but has been in Chinese control since 2012. An EEZ gives a state exclusive access to the natural resources in the waters and seabed.
In a press conference after their bilateral meeting, Austin and Galvez touted the strong relationship between the two countries. While not openly mentioning China, both called for a rules-based approach in solving international issues. Relations between the two were strained under former president Rodrigo Duterte, who leaned more toward Beijing than Washington.
“America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is iron-clad. Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold the free and open Indo-Pacific,” Austin said.
“The U.S. will always be there for us,” Galvez said.
Galvez alluded to territorial disputes in the South China Sea and concern about a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.
“Along with partner countries, we strongly oppose any unilateral action or attempts to disrupt the current world order and share the same view that all countries should resolve any issue peacefully and adhere to international law particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS,” Galvez said.
In 2016, Manila won its complaint against China before an international arbitration court, resulting in a ruling that invalidated Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has since ignored the ruling. It also pointed out that the U.S. is not a signatory of UNCLOS, which China ratified in 1996.
Analysts have said the U.S. was also ramping up its military presence in the region amid brewing tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan, which lies just north of the Philippines’ main Luzon island, is considered by Beijing to be a part of its territory. One U.S. general recently predicted war was likely to break out in 2025.
China responded to the announcement of an additional U.S. presence in the Philippines by accusing Washington of interfering in the region.
“The Philippines granting the United States greater access to military bases hurts regional stability and raises tensions,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a regular briefing in Beijing.
Meanwhile, progressive organizations staged protests outside the military’s Camp Aguinaldo where the defense headquarters is based.
“America’s defense chief is not welcome here in the Philippines. We strongly reject the expanded military bases that he is negotiating,” said the militant fisherfolk group Pamalakaya in a statement.
“Our territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea are already militarized by China; the last thing that Filipino fishers want is an expansion of U.S. military bases at the further expense of our sovereign rights and territorial integrity,” the group added.
Renato Reyes, secretary general of the group Bayan, or the New Patriotic Alliance, said the country must not allow itself to be used “as staging ground for any U.S. military intervention in the region.”
“Despite the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, the U.S. did not stop China from its aggressive acts in the West Philippine Sea. Yet the U.S. keeps promising that their presence here helps our cause,” Reyes said.
In a separate meeting with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. Thursday morning, Austin called the Philippines “a great partner” and vowed to help continue mobilizing the Philippine armed forces.
Marcos for his part said the future of the country was intertwined with the U.S. because of the enduring partnership that is “embedded in our common psyches.”
“That can only be an advantage to our countries,” Marcos said, noting that the territorial problems in the region have presented a “very complicated situation.”
BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated news service.