US secures access to more Philippine military bases around South China Sea to counter Beijing

The Philippines and the US have agreed to expand their defence pact by allowing Washington to access four more military bases around the South China Sea as it looks to counter China's growing aggression in the region.

The announcement comes as Washington opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands on Thursday to counter Beijing in the Pacific waters.

The US would be given access to the military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), defence chief Lloyd Austin and his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez said in a joint news conference on Thursday.

With four newly added locations, the US military will have access to nine bases. Washington also announced it was allocating more than $82m (£67m) toward infrastructure investments at the existing sites.

The pact allows Washington to access Philippine military bases for the purpose of joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and the building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, while barring a permanent presence.

The announcement to secure its presence around the South China Sea is seen as an effort by Washington to deter China from asserting its rights over the disputed waters as tensions over self-governed Taiwan grow.

The Philipines, under the new Ferdinand Marcos Jr government, is seen as trying to mend tainted relationships with the US that were soured by his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-American rhetoric.

Mr Austin held a meeting with Mr Marcos Jr at the presidential palace where he assured the president that “we stand ready to help you in any way we can”.

Although the locations of the new bases have not been revealed, the US had reportedly requested access on the northern land mass of Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, and on the island of Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Mr Austin, who was visiting Manila for talks, described the 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 US vice president Kamala Harris’s trip to the South Asian country last November.

“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,” he added.

“That's just part of our efforts to modernize our alliance. And these efforts are especially important as the People's Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea.”

Beijing responded strongly to the announcement, stating that greater access to military bases will hurt regional stability and raise tensions.

Meanwhile, the American embassy in the Solomon Islands has started small, with a chargé d’affaires, a couple of state department staff and local employees. Washington previously operated an embassy in the region for five years before shutting it down in 1993 as part of a global reduction in diplomatic posts.