The Philippines has granted the US greater access to its military bases, it was confirmed yesterday, amid mounting concern over China’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea and tension over self-ruled Taiwan.
The US would be given access to four more locations under the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippines’ defence secretary Carlito Galvez said in a joint news conference in Manila.
Mr Austin, in the Philippines for talks as the US seeks to extend its security options as part of efforts to deter any move by China against self-ruled Taiwan, referred to the Philippine decision as a “big deal” as he and his counterpart reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering their alliance.
“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Mr Austin, whose visit follows one by US vice-president Kamala Harris in November, which included a stop at Palawan island in the South China Sea.
“We discussed concrete actions to address destabilising activities in the waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea, and we remain committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack,” Mr Austin said.
“That’s just part of our efforts to modernise our alliance. And these efforts are especially important as People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.”
China, led by President Xi Jinping, said greater US access to Philippine military bases undermined regional stability and raised tensions.
“This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability,” China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said in a regular briefing.
“Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.”
The additional sites under the EDCA bring to nine the number of military bases the US would have access to.
The United States has announced it was allocating more than $82m for infrastructure at the existing sites.
The EDCA allows US access to Philippine military bases for joint training and the building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not for a permanent presence.
Outside the military headquarters, dozens of protesters opposed to a US military presence chanted anti-US slogans and called for the EDCA to be scrapped. Before meeting his counterpart, Mr Austin met Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos and assured him of US support. “We stand ready to help you in any way we can,” Mr Austin said.
Ties between the US and its former colony soured under the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte, who made overtures towards China and was known for anti-US rhetoric and threats to downgrade its military ties.