Philippines grants US access to more military sites amid tensions over Taiwan

Camille Elemia and Jason Gutierrez
Philippines grants US access to more military sites amid tensions over Taiwan U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III (right) arrives at the Philippines’ defense department at Camp Aguinaldo in Manila, Feb. 2, 2023.
Jason Gutierrez/BenarNews

Updated at 2:30 p.m. ET on 2023-02-02

The Philippines has given the United States access to four new military sites, an agreement that one analyst called “central” to Washington’s aim to deter any plan by Beijing to attack Taiwan.

China, meanwhile, said an expanded U.S. presence in the region amounted to interference, while some Filipino organizations staged protests against American militarization at a time when Beijing had already done the same in Philippine waters.

United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., announced the expanded access to bases as they met in Manila on Thursday to boost defense ties between the allies bound by a Mutual Defense Treaty dating back to 1951.

The Philippine defense department refused to identify the four sites, pending consultation with local government units. The additional four areas now put the total number of sites accessible to the U.S. at nine.

The U.S. has also allocated more than $82 million for infrastructure investments at the existing five sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, their defense departments said.

Enhanced U.S. access to military sites is “all about deterrence and preparation,” said Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University in Manila.

“The Philippines is now truly pivotal to the future of Taiwan,” he said on Twitter about the island that lies just north of the Philippines’ main Luzon island.

“Under EDCA, key bases in [the] northern Philippines will be central to all sorts of U.S.-led exercises aimed at preparing for and deterring any China invasion plans,” he added.

China last month renewed its threats to invade Taiwan, news agencies reported. Beijing considers Taiwan a Chinese province. One American general recently predicted that war was likely to break out in 2025.

In a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, U.S. President Joe Biden raised Washington’s objections to Beijing’s “coercive and increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan, which undermine peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the broader region,” a White House statement had said.

For their part, the Philippine and U.S. defense departments said their plans were to accelerate the full implementation of the EDCA “with the agreement to designate four new agreed locations in strategic areas of the country and the substantial completion of the projects in the existing five agreed locations.”

“The EDCA is a key pillar of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training exercises, and interoperability between our forces,” the departments’ statement said.

“Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities.”

Signed in 2014, the EDCA supplements the Visiting Forces Agreement, a 1999 bilateral pact providing legal cover for large-scale joint military exercises between the U.S. and Philippines, Washington’s longtime defense ally in the contested South China Sea region.

‘Endanger peace and stability’

When asked about these developments, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry said defense and security cooperation between countries needed to be conducive to regional peace and stability.

“The U.S. side, out of selfish interests, holds on to the zero-sum mentality and keeps strengthening military deployment in the Asia-Pacific,” Mao Ning said, according to a transcript from the foreign ministry website.

“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.”

The spokesperson of the Chinese Embassy in Manila, meanwhile, said Defense Secretary Austin “smeared China on the issue of South China Sea to advance the anti-China political agenda of the U.S.”

“Such moves contradict the common aspiration of regional countries to seek peace, cooperation and development, and run counter to the common aspiration of the Filipino people to pursue sound economic recovery and a better life in cooperation with China,” the spokesperson’s statement said.

“It is hoped that the Philippine side stays vigilant and resists from being taken advantage of and dragged into troubled waters.”

02 PH-1.jpeg
Activists led by the nationalist group Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance) stage a protest against the visit of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in front of Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon city, Feb. 2, 2023. [BenarNews/Jojo Riñoza]

Philippine Defense Secretary Galvez, though, alluded to Manila’s territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea, as well as a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

“Along with partner countries, we strongly oppose any unilateral action or attempts to disrupt the current world order and share the same view that all countries should resolve any issue peacefully and adhere to international law particularly the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, or UNCLOS,” Galvez said at a press conference after a bilateral meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Austin.

While not openly mentioning China, both called for a rules-based approach in solving international issues.

The U.S. defense chief said “America’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines is iron-clad.”

“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold the free and open Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. 

02 PH-2.jpeg
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. receives a U.S. delegation led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III at the Malacaňang presidential palace, Feb. 2, 2023. [BenarNews/FOCAP pool/AFP/Jam Sta Rosa]

Some organizations on Thursday staged protests outside the Philippine military’s Camp Aguinaldo, where the defense headquarters is based.

“America’s defense chief is not welcome here in the Philippines. We strongly reject the expanded military bases that he is negotiating,” the militant fisherfolk group Pamalakaya said in a statement.

“Our territorial waters in the West Philippine Sea are already militarized by China; the last thing that Filipino fishers want is an expansion of U.S. military bases at the further expense of our sovereign rights and territorial integrity,” the group said.

Renato Reyes, secretary general of the group Bayan, or the New Patriotic Alliance, said the country must not allow itself to be used “as staging ground for any U.S. military intervention in the region.”

“Despite the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement, the U.S. did not stop China from its aggressive acts in the West Philippine Sea. Yet the U.S. keeps promising that their presence here helps our cause,” Reyes said.

For his part, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the future of the country was intertwined with the U.S. because of the enduring partnership that was “embedded in our common psyches.”

“That can only be an advantage to our countries,” Marcos said after a separate meeting with Austin Thursday morning.

He also noted that the territorial problems in the region have led to a “very complicated situation.”

Austin called the Philippines “a great partner.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.