The Philippines booted the U.S. military out of the country 25 years ago, deriding the American troops as unwelcome guests and living symbols of colonialism. Now, fearful of a rising China, Manila is asking Washington to send them back.
The push got a major boost Tuesday when the Philippine Supreme Court approved a landmark defense cooperation deal with the United States that paves the way for American forces to deploy to an array of bases throughout the country.
The new deal represents a concrete success for the Obama administration’s “rebalance” to Asia and reflects a broader trend in the region as China’s smaller neighbors seek to push back against Beijing’s expansionist claims in the contested South China Sea. Manila, for instance, fears Beijing could seize control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal after repeated clashes with Chinese coast guard vessels over fishing rights. It sees the American military as a powerful friend that can help it counter China.
Leaders in both Manila and Washington hope the pact will serve as a deterrent to Beijing and “help convince the Chinese that pressuring its neighbors into giving up their territorial claims is actually not in China’s interest,” according to Ernest Bower, a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The accord had been negotiated in April 2014, but a legal challenge had held it up in court for months. The court ruled that the pact did not amount to a treaty that would need approval from the country’s Senate and instead could stand as an “executive agreement” under the authority of the country’s president, Benigno Aquino III.
The court ruling was announced hours before Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ash Carter held talks with their Philippine counterparts in Washington. The decision will free up tens of millions of dollars in U.S. funds set aside for modernizing the Philippine navy and other forces, which have lagged behind other states in the region. In return, the United States will have permission to land aircraft and send ships to various bases, as well as to pre-position military equipment and supplies in the country.
“As Manila finds itself the target of Chinese coercion in the West Philippine Sea and is looking to Washington for leadership, this agreement will give us new tools to deepen our alliance with the Philippines, expand engagement with the Philippine Armed Forces, and enhance our presence in Southeast Asia,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said in a statement.
Pentagon spokesman Cmdr. Bill Urban said that the agreement will benefit both countries and allow U.S. forces to rotate forces through the country on temporary deployments. But the accord “does not provide for permanent U.S. bases in the Philippines,” Urban told Foreign Policy.
The Philippines had said previously that the pact will likely grant the U.S. military access to eight bases, including two in the strategic South China Sea — Antonio Bautista Air Base and Naval Station Carlito Cunanan.
Under the deal, both governments will work out which bases will be opened to the Americans, and in some cases, the United States will help make improvements to some facilities, officials said. But it’s likely that the naval base at Subic Bay, once a sprawling hub for the U.S. Navy, and Clark Air Base will be included in the mix.
The agreement also supports the Pentagon’s new strategy that calls for dispersing its warplanes and naval ships if necessary to reduce the potential threat posed by China’s formidable missile arsenal.
China has accused the United States of meddling in territorial disputes in the South China Sea and insisted it has a historic claim to much of the disputed waters.
But Beijing has alarmed its neighbors by building artificial islands on top of reefs or rocks at a frenetic pace, in a bid to push through its far-reaching claims in the strategic waterway.
The United States has insisted it will uphold the right to “freedom of navigation” by sailing and flying near the man-made islands. By granting wider access for U.S. naval vessels and aircraft in the Philippines, the deal could allow the United States to stage more “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea, as well as improve its monitoring of Chinese activity, analysts said.
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