MANILA: The Philippines has granted the US expanded access to its military bases, their defense chiefs announced on Thursday, providing American forces with a strategic footing at a time of growing tensions over the disputed South China Sea and self-ruled Taiwan.
Manila and Washington agreed to accelerate the full implementation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement for joint training and exercises, which gives the US entry to four more locations in strategic areas of the Philippines.
The US would now have access to a total of nine military sites in the Southeast Asian country.
The move, announced during US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippine capital, is aimed at strengthening bilateral cooperation to support the Philippines’ defense capabilities and to address pressing security threats in the region, Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said during their joint news conference.
“We shall continue to work towards maintaining a stable rules-based open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region along with partner countries,” he told reporters.
“We strongly oppose any unilateral action or attempt to disrupt current world order and share the same views that all countries should resolve any issue peacefully and adhere to international law.”
Austin said the expansion will allow US and Philippine forces to operate together more efficiently from key sites across the Philippines.
“America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad,” he added.
“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
He and Galvez also discussed ways to address “destabilizing activities” around Philippine waters, including in the South China Sea.
“These efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” Austin said, referring to another name of the disputed waters.
With a recent increase of Chinese activity in the area, Manila in December boosted its military presence in the region after reports that China had started taking unoccupied land features within Philippine waters.
The US State Department announced that it was allocating more than $82 million for the infrastructure and investments of the Philippine military sites.
While Austin said that the US was not “seeking permanent basing in the Philippines,” spokesperson of the Philippine Department of National Defense Arsenio Andolong told Arab News the number of joint drills would increase.
“The existing exercises we already have with them will be expanded in terms of scope and number of participants…There will be more troops that will be joining the exercises,” he said.
Though it was signed almost a decade ago, progress on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement stalled during the years of former President Rodrigo Duterte, who distanced the Philippines from the US in favor of Beijing.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June and has since met both US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, appears to be taking a more balanced approach.
In a meeting on Thursday morning, he told Austin that he cannot see a future for his country without its longtime ally.
“The future of the Philippines and, for that matter, the Asia Pacific, will always have to involve the United States,” he said.