PHL, US TO RESTART JOINT PATROLS IN PHL, CHINA SEAS; Marcos, Austin okay deal for 4 add’l bases for American troops

PRESIDENT FERDINAND R. MARCOS JR. welcomes United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III in Malacanang: Stronger PHL-US ties are affirmed

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief and CLAIRE MORALES TRUE, Managing Editor

WASHINGTON/MANILA – To ensure free navigation and air travel and in response to growing China threat, the United States and the Philippines have agreed to restart their joint patrols in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea.

This as US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to strengthen American troops presence in the Philippines and Indo Pacific region by allowing the US forces to go on rotational station in four more strategic Philippine bases in Luzon island and in another area, in addition to five bases already agreed upon under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) of the two countries.

The four new bases have not been officially identified but sources said they may include Cagayan and Isabela provinces in Northern Philippines which are strategically located near Taiwan and the vast Philippine  territory Philippine Rise, formerly Benham Rise, and the Subic Freeport, once the largest US military installation outside the United States.

In a related development, Marcos said in Tokyo that Japan supports the US-Philippine alliance and the improvements in the capacity of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) because it wants to assure the “freedom of passage” in the contested South China Sea.

Austin called on President Marcos in Malacanang last week and met with top defense and military officials to firm up the new bases in order to counter China’s military rise and aggression in the region. Austin also visited and held dialogue with Filipino troops in Mindanao.

The Philippines and the US had suspended joint maritime patrols in the hotly contested areas in South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea under the administration of then president Rodrigo Duterte.

During Austin’s meeting with his Philippine counterpart Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. in Camp Aguinaldo, the headquarters of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, he and Galvez “agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea to help address (security) challenges.”

The initial five predetermined bases where some American troops now use and where improved facilities are to be built by the US are the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan which is near the disputed South China Sea; the Cesar Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija, Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Mactan island in Cebu province and the Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro City in Mindanao.

The US has allocated over $82 million (P4.4 billion) for infrastructure investments at the existing five sites under the EDCA.

Signed in 2014, EDCA grants US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, the right to construct facilities, and pre-position equipment, aircraft and vessels, but rules out permanent basing, in keeping with the Philippine Constitution which bans foreign military bases in the country unless covered by a treaty.

Secretary Austin said during his visit in Manila last week that Washington was not trying to reestablish permanent bases, but that the agreement to broaden its military presence under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was “a big deal.”

Visiting American military personnel could engage the Philippine military in larger joint combat-readiness trainings, provide help in responding rapidly to disasters and press efforts to help modernize Manila’s armed forces, Austin and Galvez Jr. said.

“This is part of our effort to modernize our alliance, and these efforts are especially important as the People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” Austin said at a news conference in Manila.

“Today, the Philippines and the United States are proud to announce their plans to accelerate the full implementation of the EDCA with the full agreement to designate four new Agreed Locations in strategic areas of the country and the substantial completion of the projects in the existing five Agreed Locations,” Secretary Austin of the US Department of Defense and Secretary Galvez of the Department of National Defense said in a joint statement released following their meeting last week.

With the EDCA, US and Philippines troops hold combined training, exercises, and interoperability between Filipino and American forces.

“Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate the modernization of our combined military capabilities,” the two defense officials statement added.

According to the statement, the additional four EDCA locations will also allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines and respond to other shared challenges.

“The United States has allocated over US$82 million toward infrastructure investments at the existing five sites under the EDCA, and is proud that these investments are supporting economic growth and job creation in local Philippine communities,” it added.

Manila and Washington DC have committed to moving quickly in agreeing to the necessary plans and investments for the new and existing EDCA locations.

“The Philippine-US alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad. We look forward to the opportunities these new sites will create to expand our cooperation together,” it said.

In related development, Southeast Asian foreign ministers, meeting in Jakarta, vowed to finalize negotiations with China over a proposed pact aimed at preventing conflicts in the disputed South China Sea.

In the final session of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministers meeting, the officials also agreed to unite in their approach to implement a five-step agreement made in 2021 between ASEAN leaders and Myanmar’s military leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, that seeks to end that country’s worsening crisis.

China and the ASEAN member states, which include four rival claimants to territories in the South China Sea, have been holding sporadic talks for years on a “code of conduct,” a set of regional norms and rules aimed at preventing a clash the disputed waters.