Pact to boost US military presence in Philippines

Philippine Defence Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino (left) shakes hands with United States (US) Ambassador Eric John, chair of the US negotiating panel, during the seventh round of talks between the Philippines and the US on the Enhanced Defence Coo
Philippine Defence Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino (left) shakes hands with United States (US) Ambassador Eric John, chair of the US negotiating panel, during the seventh round of talks between the Philippines and the US on the Enhanced Defence Cooperation between the two countries at the Armed Forces of the Philippines General Headquarters in Quezon city, north-east of Manila, on March 24, 2014. A 10-year defence pact that will give the Americans a significant military presence in the Philippines and boost the Filipinos' defence posture will be signed this morning, ahead of US President Barack Obama's arrival in Manila today. -- FILE PHOTO: AFP

Agreement to be signed amid souring ties between Manila and Beijing

A 10-YEAR defence pact that will give the Americans a significant military presence in the Philippines and boost the Filipinos' defence posture will be signed this morning, ahead of US President Barack Obama's arrival in Manila.

Mr Obama and his Philippine counterpart Benigno Aquino are expected to discuss the "enhanced defence cooperation agreement" in detail at a joint news conference this afternoon after holding bilateral talks.

Details about the size and location of US deployments have yet to be made public, but the new arrangement is certain to give the US a significant military presence for the first time since it shut down its naval and air bases in Subic and Clark in 1992.

Defence Undersecretary Pio Batino had said that the pact would help the Philippines achieve a "minimum credible defence posture". That "posture" entails giving the United States access to more bases, including Subic and a key naval supply base in Palawan province, over which Manila will retain full control.

It also means allowing the US to "rotate" more troops, warships and planes for longer periods of time. The US currently has a 700- strong counter-terrorism unit active in southern Philippines, but it acts only in an advisory role.

The defence pact is also crafted to help the Philippines to acquire new combat aircraft and warships more easily, and set up the infrastructure it needs to deploy these assets along its borders.

Another provision in the agreement is that the US will be able to build new facilities on existing bases to store humanitarian and disaster relief equipment.

US officials say it may take months, even years, before the Philippines sees a big influx of US troops.

The pact may also have to clear a legal hurdle from nationalist politicians who insist that the Senate must first ratify it.

Public opinion, however, has shifted towards greater support for a significant US presence in the Philippines, as relations between Manila and Beijing sour over the South China Sea.

"The Philippines has sort of been at the front line more than anybody else, as China has become more assertive in the South China Sea," said Mr Murray Hiebert, South-east Asia expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a US think-tank.

No other country in South-east Asia is challenging China the way the Philippines does, he noted.

Last month, Manila took Beijing to a United Nations arbitration court to prove its point that China does not own 90 per cent of the South China Sea.

The Philippines is the last stop of Mr Obama's four-nation Asia tour that also took him to Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.

In Kuala Lumpur yesterday, Malaysia and the US pledged to deepen bilateral ties. While Prime Minister Najib Razak said his country was committed to pursuing the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade deal, he suggested that domestic "sensitivities" may hold up its readiness to sign. Mr Obama also dismissed suggestions that the US was bullying Malaysia over the TPP.

During his two-day Manila visit, Mr Obama is expected to assure the Philippines that the US is treaty-bound to come to its defence in case of border incursions. In their talks, the two presidents are likely to discuss Manila's bid to join the US-led TPP group.

rdancel@sph.com.sg

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