Bolstering U.S. troops in the Philippines would help that country modernize its military, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said, as the Southeast Asian nation seeks to deter China from taking control of disputed territory.
Talks on increasing the U.S. troops on rotation in the Philippines reflect a “deep and unbreakable alliance,” Hagel said today in Manila at a joint briefing with his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin. He affirmed a mutual defense treaty between the two countries, whose soldiers fought side by side during World War II.
Hagel’s visit comes amid new tensions between the former U.S. colony and China, with President Benigno Aquino canceling his planned one-day trip to Nanning next week at China’s request. Aquino is seeking to boost ties with the U.S. and Japan at a time China is increasing its military and economic presence in the region and countries are vying for oil, gas and fishing resources in disputed South China Sea waters.
The stopover by Hagel “underscores how Washington continues to treat freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as a national interest, and how it is willing to deepen its coordination with major allies such as the Philippines to check further Chinese territorial assertiveness,” Richard Javad Heydarian, a political science lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University, said by phone.
The Philippines and U.S. held the first round of talks on boosting American troop levels earlier this month. Discussions will resume later today at the Pentagon in Washington, the Philippine Foreign Affairs and Defense departments said in a statement yesterday.
“We are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and friends,” Hagel said after meeting with Aquino earlier today. “The United States has a great deal of experience in building a modern military and we would like to share what we’ve learned with our Filipino allies,” he said.
The Chinese government understands the need to get along with its neighbors for peace and its own economic development, Hagel said when asked whether an increased U.S. presence could provoke China. The region can’t achieve growth and development “without stability, without security.” Hagel added that the U.S. wants South China Sea disputes to be “resolved peacefully and without coercion.”
The Philippines is referring its spat with China to the United Nations for arbitration while looking for more military support from the U.S., the official Xinhua news agency said in a commentary yesterday. “The dual tactics have shown Manila’s deliberate attempt to seek by all means to occupy islands and reefs owned by other countries in the South China Sea, and such tactics are doomed to fail,” it said.
The Philippines asked the United Nations in January to rule on its dispute with China, which moved to take control of the Scarborough Shoal a year after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships. The shoal is about three times closer to the Philippines than China, the Philippines said in an arbitration note.
The Philippines may give the U.S. access to military bases, including Subic Bay in Zambales province north of the capital, Gazmin said at the briefing today with Hagel. “Our alliance remains relevant today as it was before,” he said.
U.S. naval forces occupied Subic Bay before they were forced to leave after the Philippine Senate ended their lease contracts in 1991. The Senate later ratified a visiting forces agreement allowing temporary visits by U.S. forces for war games.
Philippine military Chief of Staff General Emmanuel Bautista and his U.S. counterpart General Martin Dempsey signed a joint statement in Washington D.C. on Aug. 22 affirming the nations’ commitment to the mutual defense treaty, according to a statement from the Philippine Armed Forces last week.