Deal allows rotating US military presence in Philippines

The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur patrols in the Philippine Sea in this Aug 15, 2013 file photo.
The US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur patrols in the Philippine Sea in this Aug 15, 2013 file photo.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) • The United States and the Philippines have announced a deal allowing for a rotating US military presence at five Philippine bases under a security agreement inked amid rising tensions with China in the South China Sea.

A joint statement after an annual US-Philippines Strategic Dialogue listed the sites as Antonio Bautista Air Base, close to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, Basa Air Base north of Manila, Fort Magsaysay in Palayan, Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.

US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Amy Searight said last Friday that the deal was reached under a 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement that grants Washington increased military presence in its former colony through rotation of ships and aircraft for humanitarian and maritime security operations.

Ms Searight told the meeting that Manila was a "critical US ally" and ties had never been stronger. She said US Defence Secretary Ash Carter would visit the Philippines next month to discuss implementation of the agreement.

US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg told reporters that movements of supplies and personnel to the base locations would take place "very soon". He described the agreement, valid for an initial 10 years, as "a pretty big deal", that would allow for a greater US presence as part of the US rebalance to Asia and enhance the alliance with the Philippines.

However, he stressed that it did not allow for permanent US bases, which existed for 94 years until 1991, when the Philippine Senate voted to evict them.

"This isn't a return to that era. These are different reasons and for 21st century issues, including maritime security," he said, adding that all US deployments would require Philippine approval.

Ms Searight said the Pentagon had told the US Congress of its intention to provide US$50 million (S$68 million) to help build regional maritime security. She said the Philippines would get "the lion's share"of the funds, which are expected to go towards improving radar and other South China Sea monitoring capabilities.

The US is keen to boost the military capabilities of East Asian countries and its own regional presence in the face of China's assertive pursuit of territorial claims in the South China Sea.

US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said Friday's agreement came at an important time ahead of a ruling in a case Manila has brought against Beijing over its South China Sea claims in the International Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

US Navy chief, Admiral John Richardson, also expressed concern during an interview that The Hague ruling, which is expected in late May, could prompt Beijing to declare a South China Sea exclusion zone.

The US Navy on Thursday said it had seen activity around a reef China seized from the Philippines nearly four years ago that could be a precursor to more Chinese land reclamation in the South China Sea.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Deal allows rotating US military presence in Philippines'. Print Edition | Subscribe