THE United States and the Philippines agreed a ten-year pact yesterday that would allow a larger US military presence in the South-East Asian nation as it grapples with increasingly tense territorial disputes with China.
The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement will give American forces temporary access to selected military camps and allow them to pre-position fighter jets and ships.
The agreement is expected to be signed today at the Department of Defence in the Philippine capital, Manila, before President Barack Obama arrives on the last leg of a four-country Asian tour, following earlier stops in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
A Philippine government paper on the defence accord did not indicate how many additional US troops would be deployed “on temporary and rotational basis”, but it said that the number would depend on the scale of joint military activities to be held in Philippine camps.
The size and duration of that presence still has to be worked out with the Philippine government, said Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian affairs at the White House’s National Security Council.
Mr Medeiros declined to say which specific areas in the Philippines are being considered under the agreement, but said the long-shuttered US facility at Subic Bay could be one of the locations.
The defence deal is a new milestone in the allies’ relationship and would help address their respective dilemmas. The Philippines has struggled to bolster its territorial defence amid China’s increasingly assertive behaviour in the disputed South China Sea. Manila’s effort has dovetailed with Washington’s intention to move away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, partly as a counterweight to China’s rising influence.
Manila-based political analyst Ramon Casiple said: “The Philippines’ immediate and urgent motivation is to strengthen itself and look for a security shield with its pitiful military. The US is looking for a re-entry to Asia, where its superpower status has been put in doubt.”
The convergence would work to deter China’s increasingly assertive stance in disputed territories, Mr Casiple said. But it could also further antagonise Beijing, which sees such tactical alliance as a US strategy to contain its rise, and encourage China to intensify its massive military buildup, he said.
Hundreds of American military personnel have already been deployed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to provide counterterrorism training and to serve as advisers to Filipino soldiers, who have been battling Muslim militants for decades.
The agreement states that the US would “not establish a permanent military presence or base in the Philippines” in compliance with Manila’s constitution. There will be “utmost respect for Philippine sovereignty,” the government paper said.
The agreement would promote better co-ordination between US and Filipino forces, boost the 120,000-strong Philippine military’s capability to monitor and secure the country’s territory and respond more rapidly to natural disasters and other emergencies.
While the US military would not be required to pay rent for local camp areas, the Philippines would own buildings and infrastructure to be built or improved by the Americans and reap economic gains from the US presence, it said, adding the pact was an executive agreement that would not need to be ratified by the Philippine Senate.
The presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former US colony.
Left-wing activists have protested against Mr Obama’s visit and the new defence pact in small but lively demonstrations.