US TO BEEF UP ‘PRESENCE’ IN INDO-PACIFIC; Defense chief Austin flies to PHL, South Korea amid threats, tension

By ALFRED GABOT, Editor in Chief

MANILA/WASHINGTON – Amid China threat and brewing tension between the Philippines and China over South China Sea and West Philippine Sea activities and a prediction by a US general of a possible “war” pitting US and China in 2025, US Defense Secretary John Lloyd Austin III visited Manila for the second time and met with officials led by President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. for dialogue aimed at  ensuring peace in the Indo Pacific region.

Austin flew in from South Korea where he held high-level discussions with his counterpart in Seoul on security issues amid North Korea threat.

Austin called on President Marcos and top defense officials and agreed on the expansion of presence of American troops in the Philippines through four more bases in addition to five bases earlier agreed upon under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) of the two countries. (More developments in next issue.)

Later the US defense chief flew to Zamboanga City and met Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff General Andres Centino and Major General Roy Galido of the Western Mindanao Command after thanking troops for their commitment to the US-Philippine alliance and shared goal for a free and open Indo Pacific region.

Earlier in Washington, Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryderr said Austin’s trips to the Philippines and South Korea were to reaffirm Washington’s “deep commitment to working in concert with allies and partners to chart our shared vision to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Austin’s trip to the Philippines comes amid tensions between Beijing and Manila due to maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The Pentagon chief has repeatedly criticized China’s actions in the hotly contested sea, where Beijing has overlapping claims with several states in the region, saying it “has no basis in international law.”

In July 2021, Austin also visited the Philippines during his Southeast Asian trip, wherein he held high-level meetings with Filipino officials on security issues.

Sources said American troops are set to be deployed to an island in the northern Philippines that could be vital in the event of a conflict with Beijing over Taiwan or the disputed South China Sea.

The enhanced US military presence in the Philippines will be set out in a reported deal to be announced after Austin meets with his Philippine counterpart and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

The US already has access to four air bases and one army base in the Philippines under its Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and talks are afoot for the expansion reportedly covering greater access to Philippine military bases and  two more areas in northern Philippines.

Sources said talks would give US forces a greater strategic foothold from northern Philippines facing Taiwan and the South China Sea and Philippine Sea in case of military or humanitarian crisis.

It was reported by US national security adviser Jake Sullivan has already discussed matters Philippine national security adviser Eduardo Año as part of a White House drive to step up ties with Indo-Pacific allies.

Año reportedly said that increased military cooperation with the United States “bodes well for our defence posture”.

The Philippines and the US has a mutual defense treaty since 1951 but relations nosedived under then President Rodrigo Duterte and now is improving under President Marcos.
Under the treaty, the US will come to support the Philippines in case it is under attack by land, sea or air.

Austin later called on President Marcos Jr. and held meetings with Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Gen. Andres Centino, and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo.

“It’s an ongoing relationship that we’ve had with the United States. As President Marcos has pointed out, it’s evolving. So our military alliance, our Mutual Defense Treaty, our Visiting Forces Agreement are obviously part and parcel of that entire relationship that we have with the United States so obviously that visit will reinforce all of these agreements that we have,” Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Romualdez said.

Romualdez, however, deferred to the DND when asked if an agreement on the five additional facilities under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) would be ripe when the US official arrives in the country.

Manila and Washington DC are expected to discuss “speeding up the implementation” of the EDCA during Austin’s trip, the US Department of Defense said in an article dated Jan. 29.

The US Defense chief, it added, would focus on capabilities and interoperability as “key to deterring any challenge in the region” amid the complex security environment in the Indo-Pacific region.

The two countries have already agreed to fully implement the EDCA through “expedited completion” of projects in existing agreed locations and finalizing procedures for the adoption of additional sites during the 10th US-Philippines Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in late January.

 Romualdez explained that the construction of facilities is consistent with the AFP’s modernization program and would also help boost the country’s disaster resiliency efforts.

“This would be good for us because it will develop many of our bases, keep it up to speed on what is really needed. And they (the US) are going to be the one to spend for it. That’s the most important thing and these are not bases not at all,” he said.

“It’s already there existing. Nasa atin na iyan (That’s already there). They’re just going to enhance it so to speak, to make it more modernized. And that’s part of our AFP modernization program anyway.”

The EDCA, signed in 2014, allows US troops to operate on a rotational basis in designated facilities within the country.

Among the US activities identified are security cooperation exercises, joint and combined training activities, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.