While negotiations are still ongoing, an announcement is expected as early as this week, when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets the defense secretary in Manila and then President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
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The expansion involves access to Philippine military bases, possibly including two bases on the northern island of Luzon — which analysts say could provide the U.S. military with a strategic location from which to operate in the event of a conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. They will also promote cooperation on a range of security issues, including faster response to natural disasters and climate-related events.
A State Department official said that the Philippines has done a lot of work over the past few months to evaluate and assess various sites, at least two of which have been identified. No right to talk about deliberation.
A Philippine defense official said an agreement on additional locations was “more or less” reached but would be formalized when the two defense ministers meet.The two office assistants are He said finalizing key details continued in recent days, with at least two new locations in Luzon.
A U.S. official said the matter was discussed earlier this month between U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his counterpart, Eduardo Año, as the White House stepped up its engagement with India. Too Ally is part of the collaborative effort.
Increased military cooperation with the United States “bodes well for our defense posture,” Philippine officials said. However, he stressed that the Philippines’ efforts to strengthen security “are not targeting any particular country.”
Marcos is “aware of the current dynamics in the region that the Philippines really needs to step up,” the official said, adding that the president has been closely monitoring developments in the Taiwan Strait and the West Philippine Sea. “We have already received incursions from several countries and tensions are expected to remain high.”
Gregory Poling, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that while expanded base access is not critical to security in the region, “it’s a big deal.” “It’s significant not just what it means for Taiwan or contingencies in the South China Sea. It’s a signal that the Philippines is fully committed to modernizing the alliance and that they understand that a modern alliance means they also have responsibilities.”
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The Philippines, once a US territory, has been a treaty ally since 1951. It hosted a large U.S. presence after World War II, including two of the largest U.S. military installations overseas — an arrangement that ended in 1991 when the Philippine Senate asserted that the country’s sovereignty had been violated, forcing the Americans to move all U.S. bases to Give it to the Philippines.
The mutual defense arrangement was further emphasized under former President Rodrigo Duterte, arguably the most pro-Beijing and anti-American president the Philippines has ever seen. Duterte has threatened to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides legal protection for U.S. troops stationed in the Philippines. But after Austin visited the Philippines in the summer of 2021, Duterte backed off his threat in the face of growing Chinese aggression in Philippine waters.
Last year’s election of Marcos continued to heat up — President Biden was the first foreign leader to call to congratulate him. But officials say the deepening of the alliance is rooted in a recognition that the region is becoming more dangerous. Last November, for example, the Chinese Coast Guard forcibly seized the wreckage of a Chinese rocket towed by the Philippine Navy near an island controlled by the Philippines. In December, Chinese militia vessels were spotted surging in the West Philippine Sea. Just last week, Chinese ships drove Filipino fishermen off a coral reef to which the Philippines has exclusive fishing rights.
China is the largest trading partner of the Philippines, and the Marcos family has historical ties to China: Marcos visited China with his father in 1974, Then-President Ferdinand Marcos with his mother Imelda Marcos, and Chairman Mao Zedong. Still, Marcos has made it clear he sees a growing threat. Asked at the Davos Economic Forum in January whether the South China Sea issue kept him up at night, he replied: “It keeps you up at night. It keeps you awake every day. It keeps most of your Stay awake all the time.”
He also said that “in terms of cross-strait tensions, we are at the forefront,” referring to the Philippines’ northernmost island, just about 200 miles from Taiwan, where refugees are most likely to flee the conflict.
Marcos said that “whenever these tensions rise” involving Chinese and American ships, “we will be on the sidelines” and if something goes wrong, “we will suffer.”
However, he noted that the ties between the U.S. and the Philippines “remain strong” and that the only way to remain strong and relevant “is to grow.”
“We have security arrangements with the United States that have come to the forefront … as tensions have increased in our region,” Marcos said.
Marcos visited Beijing in early January, where he said he raised concerns about the South China Sea. These include the Chinese navy and coast guard denying Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing grounds and the construction of artificial islands in Philippine waters. While he has struck more than a dozen deals covering travel, trade and e-commerce, his speech in Davos later this month made it clear that security concerns prevailed.
“The world has changed,” he said. “Now we’re living in the context of all these other forces that are emerging, particularly in the region, around the South China Sea.”
Under an enhanced defense cooperation agreement in 2014, the United States has access to four air bases and one army base in the Philippines. EDCA allows the U.S. military to rotate operations at agreed locations. None of the five bases are in northern Luzon.
In November, Vice President Harris became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the Philippine province of Palawan, a small but roughly 200-mile-long island that borders the disputed South China Sea. During her visit, a senior administration official noted that the two allies had identified new locations “to deepen our cooperation”.
The official said the work would expand to security cooperation exercises, joint training events and enable the United States to provide humanitarian relief more quickly in natural disasters. EDCA also offers financial benefits, the official said, noting that the United States has invested more than $82 million in existing bases, with most of the contracts to support the project going to Philippine companies.
The expected EDCA expansion follows an announcement earlier this month that the U.S. Marine Corps will transform a unit in Okinawa to better be able to operate on the austere remote island by 2025. Under the plan, a new Marine Corps coastal regiment would be equipped with advanced capabilities, such as anti-ship missiles that could be fired at Chinese ships in the event of a conflict over Taiwan.
For more than a decade, the Pentagon has sought to spread its presence across the island chain in the western Pacific, making it harder for China to focus attacks on U.S. bases. But it also helps countries like the Philippines ensure that China does not attack Taiwan or Japan directly through their archipelago, said Michael J. Green, chief executive of the Center for American Studies at the University of Sydney.
“The Philippines itself doesn’t necessarily sign up to the U.S. war plan,” said Green, who handles Asia at the White House under President George W. Bush. “But it’s a big step forward that will cheer allies like the U.S. and Japan, and signal to China that coercion costs.”