IN THE MORE than 30 years since the Philippines threw out the US military bases at Clark Field and Subic Bay, China has emerged as a military power, especially in the South China Sea, and a potent threat to Taiwan.
Hence the newly announced agreement between Manila and Washington to allow US forces greater access to four as yet unannounced Philippines military bases. They would fill the gap in the chain of defence alliances the United States is building, stretching from South Korea and Japan to Australia in response to China’s growing regional power. and military capabilities.
The announcement followed a meeting in Manila between Philippine President Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr and US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The bases used are likely to be:
- Cagayan on the northern tip of Luzon, which faces Taiwan;
- Zambales, which faces the Scarborough shoal in what Manila calls the West Philippines Sea and where Beijing has been active in island building; and
- Palawan, which faces the Spratly Islands, another area of Chinese activity.
- Isabela, to the south of Cagayan, facing eastwards into the Pacific.
US forces already have limited access to five sites in the Philippines under the two countries’ 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement.
The four additions and expanded access will not mean the return of full-blown US bases like Clark Field and Subic Bay, with thousands of US troops permanently (and disruptively) stationed. The bases will be used as operational bases for supply and monitoring activities. Cagayan and Isabela, some 200 miles from Taiwan, would likely become forward operating bases in the event of military conflict over the island.
The Philippines has to balance its extensive economic relationship with Beijing — President Marcos was in Beijing earlier this month on a three-day state to sign what he said were $22.8 billion in new investment pledges from China and an agreement to promote Chinese tourism to the Philippines — with its growing concern about China’s colonisation and militarisation of the South China Sea.
Since 2014, China has built ten artificial island bases, including one at Mischief Reef, deep inside the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. In December, there were reports of new land reclamation being undertaken in the disputed Spratly Islands.
During Marcos’s state visit, he also signed an agreement to set up a maritime hotline to de-escalate any stand-offs, accidental or otherwise, in the disputed waters.
Beijing is not letting the new base agreement derail its relations with Manila, at least for now. Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning was relatively sanguine when he said:
Out of its selfish agenda, the US side has held up to the cold war. Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.
China knows that Marcos wants to balance his country’s relationships with China and the United States, unlike his recent predecessors who tilted towards China. It will be careful to avoid driving the Philippines into being a fully-fledged defence partner with the United States like Japan and Australia.
Yet on Manila’s part, it, too, has no intention of becoming one.