The Philippines will hold talks with the U.S. on boosting American troop levels there as the Southeast Asian nation seeks to counter southern insurgents and China’s push for more influence in the region.
The two sides will discuss rotating more U.S. troops through the Philippines, joint military exercises and stationing equipment in the country to address natural disasters, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at a briefing yesterday in Manila. The talks will start tomorrow, Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta said.
The Philippines is strengthening its U.S. alliance and modernizing its military to counter what it sees as a Chinese move for greater sway in a region rife with disputes over the ownership of fish and gas-rich waters of the South China Sea. The government also wants to contain an insurgency in the southern Mindanao region, where U.S. troops have conducted counter-terrorism training since 2001.
“As an American ally, the Philippines would benefit from increased U.S. presence,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. “Expect China to react negatively.”
The U.S. supports the Philippines in its desire “to build a credible defense and respond rapidly during times of humanitarian crisis and natural disasters,” the U.S. Embassy in Manila said in an e-mailed statement today. “We are optimistic that the first round of negotiations will result in positive outcomes.”
Asked about the negotiations on Aug. 8, White House spokesman Jay Carney declined to comment, though he cited a move by President Barack Obama’s administration to rebalance its foreign policy toward a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.
“We need to be fully engaged throughout the region, both economically and when it comes to security matters,” Carney said.
The Philippines plans to spend 75 billion pesos ($1.7 billion) in five years to buy ships, helicopters, and weapons to bolster defense, Aquino said in December after enacting amendments to a 17-year-old military modernization law.
In June, the Philippines protested what it called “the massive presence of Chinese military and paramilitary ships” around territory it claims in the South China Sea.
“At the front lines of ensuring the security of our people and the territorial integrity of our nation is the profound partnership between diplomacy and defense,” Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said at yesterday’s briefing in Manila. “We have to strengthen both if we are to secure our people and our nation and to improve its response to natural disasters.”
At least 16 people were killed and scores injured by bombings in Mindanao in the past month, police and military said. An improvised bomb exploded in Maguindanao on Aug. 10 as troops clashed with members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, a group that had separated from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that’s in peace talks with the government.
Groups trying to derail the peace agreement may be behind the bombings and the government will offer a reward for their capture, Aquino said Aug. 8.
The Philippines topped a list of 10 countries most affected by natural disasters in 2012, with 2,360 deaths, according to a report by Brussels-based Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters.