Yesterday, the Washington Post reported that the U.S. military is poised to secure access to an expanded number of military bases in the Philippines, as the rapid warming of relations since the election of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. continues apace.
According to the WaPo report, which is based on U.S. and Philippine government sources, the expansion involves U.S. access to an unspecified number of Philippine military facilities, “likely including two on the northern island of Luzon.” The two sides will also “facilitate cooperation on a range of security concerns, including more rapid responses to natural disasters and climate-related events.”
While the expansion is still being negotiated, an announcement is expected as soon as this week when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to the Philippines to meet with Marcos and Carlito Galvez, who is currently the acting secretary of National Defense. The report cited an unnamed State Department official to the effect that “extensive work” has been done over the last few months to assess and evaluate various sites in the Philippines, and at least two of them have been pinned down.
The U.S. access would take place under the terms of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in 2014, at a time of growing mutual concerns about China’s assertive actions in the South China Sea. The agreement allows the U.S. rotational access to a select number of military facilities nominated by the Philippine government. So far, it applies to five military facilities – Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Basa Air Base in Pampanga – though it has been clear for several months that U.S. officials are seeking access to as many as five more.
This was reported back in November, when the U.S. announced that it would spend more than $66 million to refurbish the five military bases earmarked for a rotational troop presence under EDCA. Then, in a joint statement issued after the 10th Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) in Manila on January 19-20, the two allies stated that “the full implementation of the EDCA is underway through the ‘expedited completion’ of projects in locations, as well as by adding more locations to the list.”
As the Washington Post report makes clear, the opening of access to U.S. personnel to military facilities on the island of Luzon would give Washington “a strategic position from which to mount operations in the event of a conflict in Taiwan or the South China Sea.” Luzon is less than 200 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal, which was the subject of a protracted standoff between Beijing and Manila in 2012, which left China in possession of the triangular reef, and a similar distance from the southernmost tip of Taiwan, over which tensions between China and the U.S. have recently been mounting.
Should it be announced this week as expected, the reported development will be just the latest sign of the rapid progression of U.S.-Philippines relations after the exit of President Rodrigo Duterte, who initiated a sharp turn against the U.S. and steered his government into friendlier relations with China – despite the ongoing tensions in the South China Sea.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland earlier this month, Marcos said that the alliance between the United States and the Philippines “remained strong,” but that “the only way for it to remain strong and to remain relevant is to evolve that relationship so we can no longer be simply what it was before.”
He noted that both the world and the region have “changed,” and that “to be able to respond properly we have to evolve these relationships.”
For all that is novel, the improvement in relations is being marked by a stepwise reversion to the force posture of the late Cold War, when the U.S. maintained two massive military bases – Clark Air Base and U.S. Naval Station Subic Bay – on Luzon, as Washington seeks to encircle the Chinese mainland with deployments of U.S. personnel designed to deter it from military action against Taiwan or any other U.S. ally in the region.
“We anticipate that 2023 is going to be a very exciting year for the alliance,” a senior U.S. defense official was quoted as saying in a recent article published by the U.S. Department of Defense. “Right now, I think we’re seeing a very positive upswing in the trajectory of the relationship.” As it stands, we are yet to see the outer limits of the U.S.-Philippine partnership.