The U.S. and the Philippines on Thursday announced the expansion of America’s military presence in the archipelago nation.
The agreement will grant the U.S. four more military camps in Southeast Asia amid rising tensions with China, which has been saber-rattling about being “reunified” with its sovereign island neighbor and U.S. ally, Taiwan.
The deal was made public during a visit to the Philippines by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. He thanked President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. whom he met briefly in Manila, for allowing the U.S. to broaden its presence in the land of America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia.
The agreement in part reverses U.S. troop withdrawal from its former colony more than 30 years ago.
The Philippines used to host two of the largest U.S. Navy and Air Force bases outside the U.S. mainland. They were shut down in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but American forces later returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops.
Secretary Austin and his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., noted on Thursday that the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty obligates the U.S. and the Philippines to help defend each other in major conflicts, and that it applies to “armed attacks on our armed forces, public vessels or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.”
However, the Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops and their involvement in local combat.
“The U.S. is not looking for permanent bases. It’s about places, not bases,” Gregory B. Poling, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, told the BBC. “There is no contingency in the South China Sea that does not require access to the Philippines.”
China has meanwhile accused the U.S. of a “Cold War zero-sum mentality.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Mao Ning said on Thursday, “This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability.”
The U.S.-Philippines agreement follows a shift in the U.S. military posture on the Japanese island of Okinawa in January, where a retooling aims to better able and better equip the U.S. Marine regiment there to fight adversaries and defend the U.S. and allies in the region.
That agreement with Japan came roughly a month after the U.S. launched a Space Force unit at Osan Air Base near Seoul, South Korea, which is expected to allow the Pentagon to better monitor rival nations North Korea, China and Russia.
On Thursday, neither Austin nor Galvez went into great detail regarding the Philippines agreement. Austin merely said, “I am confident that we will continue to work together to defend our shared values of freedom, democracy and human dignity.”