US seals crucial military deal with the Philippines close to China ‘flashpoints’

<span>Photograph: Rolex dela Peña/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Rolex dela Peña/AFP/Getty Images

The Philippines has granted the United States expanded access to its military bases, greatly enhancing Washington’s presence in the region at a time of growing concern about Chinese aggression.

Washington would be given access to four additional military bases in “strategic areas of the country”, without specifying the locations, the Philippines’ Department of National Defense said on Thursday in a statement.

The expanded access will fill a crucial gap in US positioning in the region, say analysts, and enable it to better monitor Chinese activity in the South China Sea and near Taiwan.

Related: China accused of seizing rocket debris from Philippines navy in South China Sea dispute

The deal has been made under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that allows the US access to Philippine bases for joint training, storing equipment and supplies, and building of facilities, though not to establish a permanent presence. The US already has access to five sites.

The arrangement will strengthen the US’s presence in the Indo-Pacific, where it has allies stretching from Japan and Korea in the north, to the Philippines and, in the south, Australia. US officials have previously commented that the positioning of US military equipment in Asia is too strongly oriented towards north-east Asia.

In its statement, the Philippines Department of National Defense said Washington would allocate more than $82m (£67m) toward infrastructure investments at the five previous bases it was given access to. “The Philippine-US alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad,” it said.

China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman told a regular press briefing on Thursday afternoon the US was strengthening its military deployment in the region “out of its own selfish interests and with a zero-sum mentality”.

Mao Ning accused the US of “exacerbating regional tension and jeopardising regional peace and stability”, and said other countries in the region should be wary of being “taken advantage of” by the US.

In Chinese state media, coverage focused on assessments that the US was expanding its military footprint in the region “to counter China”, and that the Philippines should take care in balancing its relationships with both countries.

The announcement was made during a visit to Manila by the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who was scheduled to hold talks with his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr and national security adviser Eduardo Año, as well as President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

It has been widely reported that the US asked for access to bases on Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, and on the island of Palawan, the closest landmass to the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Such sites were valuable for two reasons, said Denny Roy, senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu. “They are geographically close to the top two flashpoints involving China: Taiwan and the South China Sea,” he said, adding: “Second, additional places in the area where the USA can pre-position forces helps to lessen the problem of concentrating too many forces in a small number of places that might be vulnerable to Chinese missile attacks.”

An airfield, buildings, and structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in Spratly Islands, South China Sea.
An airfield, buildings, and structures are seen on the artificial island built by China in the Spratly Islands. Photograph: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

The location in Luzon would allow the US to provide operational and logistical support to Taiwan, if needed, said Herman Kraft, professor of political science at University of the Philippines. For now, the access would most likely be used for monitoring purposes, he said.

The expanded access fills a missing link in terms of US positioning in the region that dates back to 1991, when the Philippines refused to ratify a new agreement with Washington, its former colonial ruler, forcing them to leave, said Kraft. “South-east Asia has always been more or less a gap [for the US],” said Kraft. “They do have a deployment arrangement with Singapore, but it’s a small one.”

Relations with the US had deteriorated under the previous president Rodrigo Duterte, who once said it was “time to say goodbye” to the US, and threatened to scrap a bilateral agreement covering visiting American troops. There is a sense, said Kraft, of Marcos, who took office last year, “wanting to take a more cooperative, less confrontational relationship with the United States”.

The announcement comes amid concerns over China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea, a major potential flashpoint. The Philippines, as well as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei all have claims to parts of the sea, while Beijing claims sovereignty over almost all of it.

A report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, found the China Coast Guard maintained near-daily patrols at key features across the South China Sea in 2022, and that its presence was “more robust than ever”.

The report, which analysed automatic identification system data from commercial provider MarineTraffic, found that the number of calendar days that a China Coast Guard vessel patrolled key features had increased across the board when compared with data from 2020. Features studied included Second Thomas Shoal, Luconia Shoals, Scarborough Shoal, Vanguard Bank, and Thitu Island.