MANILA — The United States and the Philippines announced Thursday that U.S. military forces will be given access to four new bases in the Southeast Asian nation, solidifying a months-long U.S. effort to expand its strategic footprint across the Indo-Pacific region to counter threats from China.
Greeting Austin before they met at the Malacanang Palace on Thursday morning, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. did not mention China directly. But he spoke of a “terribly complex situation, something we can only navigate properly with help from our partners and allies.”
“The United States has always been our longest partner and ally,” Marcos said. “I have always said, it seems to me that the future of the Philippines, and for that matter the Asia-Pacific region, will always involve the United States.”
Austin replied that “my goal, and it’s certainly President Biden’s goal, is to strengthen the relationship in every way possible.” Austin is spending two days in the Philippines as part of a Pacific swing aimed at expanding Washington’s Indo-Pacific alliances and partnerships.
The announcement did not specify where the new base locations would be. In a news conference with Austin, Philippines acting defense secretary Carlito Galvez said the “diplomatic protocols” had not yet been completed, and also that no final sites would be chosen until local governments in the proposed locations were consulted, there were determinations of what kind of new infrastructure was necessary and inspections were undertaken of sites that are “very vulnerable to climate change.”
Galvez cautioned not to use the word “bases,” saying “we call them access sites.”
The Biden administration has been eager to have at least two of the new sites located on the northern island of Luzon, which would give U.S. forces a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict in Taiwan, more than 250 miles to the north, or the South China Sea.
Austin emphasized that all U.S. troops in the Philippines are here on a rotational basis. “This is not about permanent basing,” he said at the news conference, but about increasing opportunities for training, improved interoperability between the two armed forces and more effective response to threats and humanitarian issues.
Their existing mutual defense treaty, he said, “applies to armed attacks on either of our armed forces, public vessels or aircraft, anywhere in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea.”
He and Galvez, Austin said, had “discussed concrete actions to address destabilizing activities in the waters surrounding the Philippines,” and “we remain committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack.”
The United States has previously allocated more than $82 million for infrastructure improvements at the Philippine facilities where rotating U.S. forces are already permitted. “The United States and the Philippines have committed to move quickly in agreeing to the necessary plans and investments for the new and existing” locations, the joint announcement said.
Use of the bases will also facilitate cooperation on a range of security issues, it said, including more rapid responses to natural disasters and climate-related events.
During his meeting with Marcos, Austin offered U.S. aid to deal with a 6.0-magnitude earthquake that struck the island of Mindanao, at the far southern end of the Philippine archipelago, on Wednesday.
That same day, Austin traveled to the Mindanao city of Zamboanga to visit the regional Philippine military command and about 150 U.S. Special Operations forces based there. The rotating force has been in place since after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to help combat what was then a growing threat from a homegrown Islamist terrorist group, allied first with al-Qaeda and later the Islamic State.
That threat has waned considerably in recent years, but training and other forms of assistance continue, including intelligence and surveillance.
A senior U.S. defense official said the “lessons learned” during the advisory relationship in Zamboanga “can apply to any number” of other joint challenges and provide a foundation on which to build the improving bilateral relationship.
Most of the senior Philippine officers who met with Austin at the base, called Fort Navarro, had attended military courses in the United States. In addition to those at Zamboanga, an additional 350 U.S. military personnel work on a rotating basis in conjunction with the embassy in Manila.
In Washington, a senior administration official said the effort to improve relations with the Philippines and gain greater military access “is a priority for the Biden administration” and noted that White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan had spoken to his counterpart in Manila about the bases last month.
“This effort has had high-level White House attention and [is] a part of our strategic effort across the region,” said the official, who, like the defense official, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue.
In Manila, members of the Philippine defense establishment have also been anticipating confirmation of the new agreement.
Rommel Jude Ong, a maritime security expert and retired vice commander of the Philippine Navy, said it was long overdue, adding that the agreement would allow the country to develop a viable counter-strategy against China’s incursions into Philippine waters. The Philippines cannot afford to take a back seat in managing the geopolitical tensions in the region, he said.
“Unfortunately … our proximity to Taiwan and the CCP’s [Chinese Communist Party’s] seeming interest in the northern Philippines indicates that we are involved, whether we like it or not,” Ong said.
Washington’s access to Philippine installations falls under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed in 2014. But the implementation of that agreement was paused under the administration of Marcos’s predecessor, President Rodrigo Duterte, who was arguably the country’s most pro-Beijing and anti-American leader.
The Philippines, once a U.S. territory, has been a treaty ally since 1951. It hosted a massive U.S. presence after World War II, including two of the largest American military facilities overseas — an arrangement that ended in 1991 when the Philippine Senate, asserting the country’s sovereignty was being violated, forced the United States to relinquish all its bases.
The mutual defense arrangement was further stressed under Duterte, who threatened to end the Visiting Forces Agreement, which gave legal protections to U.S. military forces in the Philippines. After Austin visited in the summer of 2021, and in the face of increasing Chinese aggression in Philippine waters, Duterte withdrew the threat.
The election of Marcos last year continued a warming trend toward the United States — President Biden was the first foreign leader to call to congratulate him. But the deepening of the alliance, officials say, is rooted in a recognition that the region is becoming a more dangerous place.
There’s a growing perception in the Philippines that Duterte’s attempt to embrace China “seems to have failed,” said Susannah Patton, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Lowy Institute in Sydney.
In November, the Chinese coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris being towed by the Philippine navy near one of the Philippine-held islands. In December, Chinese militia ships were spotted swarming in the West Philippine Sea. And just last month, Chinese vessels drove Philippine fishermen from one of the reefs at which the Philippines has exclusive fishing rights.
But not all Filipinos think that closer military ties with the United States are the solution to China’s aggression.
Outside Camp Aguinaldo, where Austin met Galvez, several dozen people gathered Thursday afternoon to protest the new agreement.
“Filipinos must not allow our country to be used as staging ground for any U.S. military intervention,” said Renato Reyes, secretary general of Bagong Alyansang Makabayan, an alliance of left-wing groups, which is opposed to the EDCA expansion.
Deals such as the Visiting Forces Agreement have done little so far to curb incursions into Philippine waters by China and other countries, Reyes said. “And yet,” he added, “the U.S. keeps promising that their presence here helps our cause.”
Jhesset O. Enano in Manila and Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.