The US and Philippines announced on February 2 a substantial expansion of their existing military cooperation arrangements, increasing the number of facilities that American forces can access on a rotational basis to nine.
The deal, announced during a visit by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, amends the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty which has long committed both countries to come to each other’s aid in the event of a conflict.
Bilateral relations between Washington and Manila have improved steadily under the leadership of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who was elected in June 2022, although they had been slowly warming before the change of the Filipino leadership.
The obvious American strategy in play is to strengthen the existing defensive ring of alliances around China, but with a particular focus on boosting the defense of Taiwan in view of Beijing’s loud saber rattling, as well as pushing back against China’s steady encroachment in the South China Sea with thinly disguised military construction projects on several coral atolls directly opposite the Philippines and other nations in the region.
Austin’s trip came just days before the first of what turned out to be a group of Chinese surveillance balloons that entered American airspace and lingered for days before being shot down by US forces. Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed his planned Beijing visit in response to the aerial incursions, with that trip to be rescheduled when conditions are considered appropriate.
Four New US access points agreed
American forces already enjoy access to five facilities in the Philippines, which are located on Philippines-run military bases under the so-called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or EDCA, of 2014. For that batch of facilities, the US was authorized to build new structures to facilitate troop deployments that are designated to be rotational, not permanent. This is not always an easy sell on Capitol Hill when it comes to appropriating funds for such projects on bases not fully under American jurisdiction. Some of those EDCA construction projects have proceeded slowly and remain incomplete.
The four new facilities in the agreement have not been fully detailed by either party, but the focus seems designed to support the extended defense of Taiwan by expanding US capabilities in northern Luzon, the country’s largest island and closest to Taiwan as well as expanding access to bases on islands on the South China Sea, for example, Palawan.
Consultations with local authorities are needed before final decisions are taken on new sites, according to media reports. There is also expected to be a boost in direct US military assistance to the Philippines under the new agreement.
New rotational operations versus old permanent bases
The arrangements in place now, and expanding, are very different from the US-Philippines military alliance in years past. The Philippines remains the US’ oldest treaty ally in Asia, but two of America’s largest bases in the region, Clark Field and Subic Bay, were shut down in the 1991-92 period after the Philippine Senate declined to extend the basing deals Washington offered, as well as the catastrophic volcanic eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, near Clark Field, which made the utilization of both US bases almost unsustainable.
The highly strategic former US Navy base at Subic Bay has been transformed into a thriving regional logistics hub, the Subic Bay Freeport Zone, but Clark Field was significantly less successful in its reinvention efforts. American forces have returned to Clark for limited rotational operations over the last decade, primarily to monitor Chinese naval movements.
The American facilities, whether new-style rotational or old-style permanent, have always had to deal with a certain degree of domestic opposition in the Philippines, which is not substantially different than in many other countries where the US has basing arrangements although each case has different historical parameters.
Good old-fashioned Philippine nationalists have long opposed any restrictions/obligations which US facilities might generate, while others are simply more practical and demand higher payments for base access and/or other bilateral benefits Washington might provide. These groups have been frequently energized whenever visiting US personnel overstep the boundaries set out in the bilateral status of forces agreements, usually involving American personnel on leave who often clash with local law enforcement officials.
Opposition from leftist political groups and guerillas has come in the form of anti-base demonstrations and a small number of New People’s Army attacks on US military personnel in the country over the years. Some American personnel have been lost in bombings by Islamic guerillas and Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines, as well, although this normally occurs only when US and Philippine military forces are on joint missions.
Leftist reaction to the new agreement has been peaceful but energetic. In a statement, the Marxist group Bayan warned that the expansion of agreed EDCA sites might trigger more tension in the region. Bayan said, “Filipinos must not allow our country to be used as a staging ground for any US military intervention in the region.” Taking a closed-minded approach, the group also declared “The US is engaged in provocations with China using the issue of Taiwan. Allowing US use of our facilities will drag us into this conflict which is not aligned with our national interests.”
Duterte flirted with China and Russia
Former President Rodrigo Duterte, who left office in 2022 after a six-year term, pursued a multi-country foreign relations strategy, including establishing his country’s strongest friendship ever with China as well as holding discussions with Russia, before eventually gravitating back to the US, his country’s oldest ally.
In his early years in office, Duterte criticized Washington repeatedly for its lack of respect for the Philippines’ sovereignty but was said to be disappointed that his risky outreach to China produced modest results in view of continuing aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea.
Predictable comments from China
The US’ actions, the Chinese Embassy in Manila claimed on February 2, “undermine regional peace and stability” and “contradict the common aspiration of regional countries to seek peace.” It continued, “China always holds that defense and security cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability, not target against any third party, even less to harm the interests of a third party.” And it warned, “it is hoped that the Philippine side stays vigilant and resists… being taken advantage of and dragged into troubled waters.”
Beijing’s formal initial reaction was predictable. Mao Ning, replying for China’s Foreign Ministry, claimed the announcement between the US and the Philippines threatens security in the region. “This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability. Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.”