Giving the United States greater access to Philippine military bases would allow the superpower to respond more swiftly to flashpoints in the region, as potential conflicts brew in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, analysts say.
The U.S. and Philippine defense secretaries announced recently that the allies had struck a deal for granting American forces access to four more military bases in the Philippines, under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
The U.S. will now be able to rotate its forces in and out of and pre-deploy equipment and materiel at a total of nine bases in the Southeast Asian country strategically located in the South China Sea and close to Taiwan.
But at their joint press conference in Manila on Thursday, neither U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin nor Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr. said openly whether the deal emerged from fears over a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan.
Instead, both sides played it down by saying that the expanded access to Philippine bases would enable them to respond more quickly to humanitarian emergencies and disasters in the region.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” political analyst Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and a former government adviser on security, told BenarNews.
“The U.S. should admit that EDCA aims to counter China’s growing military advantage to control Taiwan, the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula and eventually the whole Asian region.”
Both countries, he said, would do well to be transparent about their true intentions – wanting more American facilities in the Southeast Asian archipelago, which is near these flashpoints for conflict.
“If EDCA sites are for HADR [Humanitarian and Disaster Response], maritime domain awareness and counterterrorism, I think the Philippines has offered more than enough locations,” Banlaoi said.
“I think the U.S. is preparing for greater military contingencies requiring more access to Philippine territories strategically situated at the heart of the Indo-Pacific,” he added.
The Philippines, a longtime close ally and former American colony, was the hub of the U.S. military presence in Southeast Asia during the Cold War. Until the early 1990s, when a nationalist-leaning Senate voted to shut them down, the country hosted two of the largest overseas American military bases – Subic Naval Base and Clark Air Base.
More recently, the bilateral relationship became strained during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022), who steered the Philippines closer towards Washington’s rival powers, China and Russia.
He had threatened to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement. This defense pact with the U.S. provides legal cover for the EDCA, a 2014 agreement that allows American forces to rotate in and out of the Philippines and access a limited number of bases here.
Duterte later reversed his position before leaving office in 2022, as he called on China to respect international law in the South China Sea.
His successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., is widely seen here as more U.S.-friendly. Marcos has expressed a clearer position on the disputed waterway, although he has stated that his government would also work with China for economic investments and trade.
It’s clear that both nations considered the Philippines’ defense of its territory while they were negotiating additional EDCA sites last year, according to Manila-based political analyst Don McLain Gill, regional director for the Philippine-Middle East Studies Association, a think-tank.
“There were discussions then that among the sites that are critical is Subic, which faces the controversial and disputed South China Sea,” he told BenarNews, referring to the site of the former U.S. naval base. Subic has been transformed into a freeport but is still a property of the Philippine government.
The alliance, Gill argued, has evolved based on “emerging threats and strategic developments in the region.”
However, by increasing the U.S. presence in the region via its ties with the Philippines, China is likely to counter this development “by solidifying its position in the region, particularly its locus of power in the Western Pacific,” Gill said.
In his view, “China will try to deepen its engagement further with its immediate neighbors as it did during the 1950s and 1960s to limit U.S. influence and its ability to harness a collective capacity to balance China through the alliance network.”
While the new Philippine president has signaled that his administration wants to work with Beijing on economic development, “strengthening Philippine deterrence, modernizing its military, and diversifying strategic partners will be an undeniable component of the Marcos government’s policies,” Gill said.
Last month, Marcos undertook his first presidential visit to China, where he and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to set up a hotline between their nation’s foreign offices to communicate over tensions in contested waters of the South China Sea.
On Thursday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the announcement in Manila about the expanded access to the Philippines for U.S. forces.
“This would escalate tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region. Regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the U.S.,” ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said.
Reactions at home
The Philippines has yet to reveal the names of the four new sites where American forces will be given access.
“[W]e’re pleased to announce today that President Marcos has approved four new EDCA locations, and that brings the total number of EDCA sites to nine,” Austin said at the news conference with Galvez, according to a transcript from the Pentagon.
While responding to a reporter’s question later on, Austin said “EDCA is not about permanent basing here in the Philippines.”
“It’s about providing access that allows us to increase our training opportunities with our partners, our allies here,” the U.S. defense chief said. “It’s about having the ability to respond in a more effective fashion as we’re faced – as we’re collectively faced with humanitarian assistance issues or natural – or disaster response issues.
Although news of the expanded defense ties with the U.S. has generally been well received here, others have expressed caution.
Nationalist activists point to past abuses committed by American troops in the Philippines. These include the case of Lance Cpl. Joseph Scott Pemberton, a Marine who was convicted of killing a transgender Filipino woman but was pardoned by President Duterte.
“As the number of EDCA bases mutates into nine, the administration should brief Congress and tell the public on where these additional four will be,” House of Representatives Deputy Speaker Ralph Recto said in a statement Friday.
“National security is not harmed by that candor. But any secrecy will deal transparency, an avowed hallmark of this administration, a serious blow,” said Recto, a former senator.
On Saturday, Galvez issued a statement in which he defended the decision to expand the EDCA with the U.S., saying it is “the sovereign right of every country” to build its defense capability.
“[I]n pursuit of that right the DND [Department of National Defense] has been and will always remain consistent in its position that all engagements with the U.S. as well as other foreign partners must be conducted in accordance with the Philippine Constitution and other national laws,” the Philippine defense secretary said.
The newly expanded deal “is not about permanent basing in the Philippines, which is forbidden by the Philippine Constitution,” and it “will allow our allies access to training opportunities with Philippine personnel on a rotational basis,” Galvez stressed.
Under the deal, facilities and infrastructure will also be constructed to help enhance the Philippine military’s capabilities and “serve as storage or housing for assets and materiel,” he added.
“Prepositioned equipment that will be stored in the Agreed Locations will strengthen our capabilities to immediately deliver humanitarian assistance to disaster-affected areas as well promote more rapid reaction times during disasters, emergencies, or contingencies,” he said.