The Philippines will let the U.S. build facilities inside the Southeast Asian nation’s military bases, under a pact that would boost the American troop presence there at a time of rising tensions with China.
Philippine concern about access to U.S. facilities on its bases was “sufficiently addressed” and the two countries will hold further talks later this month as they seek to wrap up an agreement, Philippine Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said at a briefing in Manila today. “It’s safe to say there is already consensus” on the access issue.
The negotiations come as a territorial dispute escalates between the Philippines and China over resource-rich shoals in the South China Sea. The Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, lacks the military power to deter China from contested waters rich in oil, gas and fish and has asked the United Nations to rule on disputes, a process China has rejected.
Chinese ships used water canons in January to drive Filipino fishermen away from the Scarborough Shoal, the Philippine military said on Feb. 24. China warned off two Philippine boats near the Second Thomas Shoal this week, its Foreign Ministry said on March 10.
The Philippine foreign affairs department summoned China’s envoy in Manila to object to China’s latest action and asked it to “desist from any further interference” at the shoal, the agency said on March 11. Last month it also summoned the envoy over the water canon incident, calling it an act of harassment.
China has the right to drive Philippine ships away from the Second Thomas Shoal, the Foreign Ministry said yesterday in a statement on its website, citing spokesman Qin Gang. The Philippines sent ships carrying materials to the shoal to build facilities there, a move that infringes China’s rights and is a provocation, Qin said.
“The defense pact would be a strong political signal to China that the U.S. is on our side,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila, said by phone. “The deal may allow American access to more Philippine military bases, which also benefits the U.S. in its Asian pivot strategy.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said today that the agreement “is an issue between the Philippines and the U.S.”
Facilities to be built by the U.S. inside Philippine bases will be for joint use, Batino said. “Negotiations just like this one are very fluid and we cannot have a definitive time line when we will finish this.”
Securing U.S. facilities in the Philippines was one of the remaining issues that the parties needed to address, J. Eduardo Malaya, a member of the Philippine negotiating panel and the Philippine ambassador to Malaysia, said at the same briefing.
The U.S. ended its permanent military presence in the Philippines with the closing of the Subic Bay base after the lease ended in 1991. The U.S. rotates 500 troops into the southern Philippines each year to aid in counter-terrorism operations, while 6,500 come annually for exercises, according to the Philippine military.
The Philippines is very close to finishing the pact with the U.S., President Benigno Aquino said in an interview on Feb. 19. Negotiators may seek to wrap up a deal before U.S. President Barack Obama visits the Philippines in April as part of a trip to the region that also takes in Japan.