How the US-Philippines military pact could counter China’s rising threat

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin III, right, shake hands with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during a courtesy call at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Philippines on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. (Jam Sta Rosa/Pool Photo via AP)

The U.S. announcement on Wednesday that it will expand its military presence in the Philippines to four new bases and bolster five existing ones is a major advancement in the Defense Department’s goal to counter a rising threat from China in the Indo-Pacific region.

A boost of American military troops and resources in the Philippines would come amid a rapid Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea. The expanded U.S. presence could serve as a deterrence against Beijing’s threats to Taiwan.

It’s not clear exactly where the new bases will be.

The U.S. has sought access to camps in the northern and western parts of the Philippines, including those in the northern tip of Luzon that would lie just across a sea border from Taiwan.

Jeffrey Hornung, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation who specializes in U.S. foreign and defense policies in the Indo-Pacific region, said the expansion sends a strong signal to China and would be important strategically, especially if the bases are in the northern Luzon region.

“The U.S. realizes it’s the away team, and China’s the home team, and that for any conflict regarding Taiwan, it’s going to be extremely difficult to engage in that conflict,” Hornung said. “They’re trying to make up for those those inadequacies.”

Still, Hornung offered some caution.

If a war between the U.S. and China were to break out, it does not mean the Philippines has signed on to support the conflict. The state of politics in the Philippines will be a factor; for example, the previous Philippine administration was more receptive to China.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. ahead of the announcement, along with the nation’s foreign affairs secretary and national defense leader.

Austin said at a press conference in Manila, the Philippines’ capital, that the expanded military presence is a “big deal” and a sign of the the two nations’ ironclad partnership.

“The United States and the Philippines are more than just allies,” Austin said. “We’re family.”

The Philippines, a former U.S. territory, has been an ally of Washington for more than seven decades and is a vital partner in the Indo-Pacific.

It formerly hosted the largest military bases outside of the U.S. mainland, but those were shut down in the 1990s after the country’s lawmakers rejected an extension.

Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, signed in 2014, American troops can station at agreed-upon locations on a rotational basis, meaning they cannot station there permanently.

U.S. military personnel have conducted military drills in the Philippines while also providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief support.

Wednesday’s announcement brings the total number of U.S. military bases in the Philippines to nine. The five existing bases will also see new investments and the completion of additional projects.

The Defense Department additionally said it would restart joint maritime patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea.

The announcements drew a fiery response from Beijing, which has long protested against the U.S. military presence in the Indo-Pacific.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said the U.S. has “adhered to a Cold War zero-sum mentality” through a regional military expansion.

“This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability,” Mao told reporters at a press conference.

Tensions between the U.S. and China over a potential Chinese blockade or military action against Taiwan have sharply escalated in recent years.

In August, then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) traveled to Taiwan in a show of support, prompting unprecedented Chinese military drills over the nation.

The U.S. recognizes that Taiwan is formally a part of China but commits to informal relations with the country, which has self-ruled since 1949.

Under the threat of China’s Indo-Pacific expansion and possible military action against Taiwan, neighboring Japan recently committed to doubling its defense budget and is also partnering more closely with the U.S. in the region, with the allies recently announcing a revamped Marine unit equipped with advanced weaponry in the Okinawa islands.

A Center for Strategic and International Studies report released Wednesday described the Philippines is an “attractive staging point for U.S. intervention” against any Chinese incursion of Taiwan, also stressing that Japan is a crucial ally in the event of a conflict.

“There is no viable strategy for countering China’s illegal behavior in the East and South China Seas without robust cooperation with Tokyo and Manila,” the authors wrote. “Both governments are also crucial in thinking through responses to potential Taiwan contingencies.”

An expanded military presence also helps the Philippines, which has fallen behind in modernizing its military forces.

Along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, the Philippines is locked in territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, where China is building up artificial military bases and is accused of overfishing in other nations’ waters.

Marcos said on Thursday that the Indo-Pacific has “become a terribly complicated situation.”

“It is something we can only navigate with the help of our partners and our allies,” the Philippine president said, according to a release from the Pentagon.

The U.S. lays no claims to the South China Sea but has deployed military vessels to promote freedom of navigation. Vice President Harris also visited the Philippines in November, calling attention to China’s overfishing and territorial encroachments.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Tags China Ferdinand Marcos Indo-Pacific Jeffrey Hornung Lloyd Austin Manila Pentagon Philippines Taiwan

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