Philippines set to allow wider US access to military bases | South China Sea News

Move comes amid concerns about China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea and over self-ruled Taiwan.

The United States and the Philippines are expected to announce a deal to allow US troops access to four more military bases in the Southeast Asian nation.

The agreement between the two countries to expand cooperation will be announced during a visit to Manila by the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, a senior Philippine official told the AFP news agency.

“There’s been an agreement to designate four new additional sites,” the Philippine official said on condition of anonymity.

Talks were ongoing for a potential fifth base, the official added.

Austin met his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr on Thursday and was also holding talks with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who took office last year.

The meetings are designed “to build on our strong bilateral relationship, discuss a range of security initiatives, and advance our shared vision of a free and open Pacific,” Austin said on Twitter.

The expansion comes as China becomes increasingly assertive in pressing its claim to almost the entire South China Sea. The Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations also claim parts of the sea, which is a major global trade route.

Austin arrived in Manila earlier this week from South Korea, where he promised advanced weapons such as fighter jets and bombers for the Korean Peninsula to strengthen joint training with South Korean forces in response to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.

In the Philippines, the US is looking to ramp up defence not only because of the disputed South China Sea but also with an eye on China’s increasingly aggressive actions towards the self-ruled island of Taiwan, which is a two-hour flight away.

The US and the Philippines have a decades-old security alliance that includes a mutual defence treaty and a 2014 pact, known as EDCA, which allows US troops to rotate through five Philippine bases, including those near disputed waters.

It also allows for the US military to store defence equipment and supplies on those bases.

The relationship between the two allies was strained under Marcos Jr’s predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who favoured China and threatened to sever ties with Washington and expel US troops.

But ties have warmed under the new administration, with US Vice President Kamala Harris visiting last November.

Tension in disputed seas

A Philippine official told the Reuters news agency that Manila’s priorities in its agreements with Washington were to boost its defence capabilities and interoperability with US forces, as well as to improve its ability to cope with climate change and natural disasters.

Most of the new bases are expected to be on the archipelago’s main island of Luzon but the western island of Palawan, facing the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, is expected to get an additional base as well.

A senior US defence official told reporters on Wednesday that the Philippines was under “day-to-day pressure from (China) in ways that contravene international law”.

The US aims to ensure “they have the capability to defend their own sovereignty”, the official said.

The Philippines has often found itself on the front line of Beijing’s aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, where China’s maritime militia has established an almost constant presence in Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

In 2012, China took control of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines after a months-long standoff that began when Manila discovered Chinese fishing boats around the rocky outcrops.

Tensions rose again in 2021 when the Philippines protested against China’s “continuing illegal presence and activities” near its islands in the South China Sea.

Beijing has ignored a 2016 international court ruling – in a case brought by the Philippines – that its claim to the South China Sea was without merit.

China also claims democratic Taiwan as part of its territory and has not ruled out the use of force to achieve its objective.

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