PH offers 8 bases to US
WASHINGTON—Top diplomats and defense officials of the United States and the Philippines met on Tuesday to discuss arrangements for expanded US military presence in eight facilities in the Philippines in a bid to strengthen maritime cooperation amid tensions with China in the disputed South China Sea.
Speaking to reporters after the talks, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said he discussed with US officials locations where the Philippines could provide access to US forces for “mutual benefit.”
The high-level meeting was held at the Department of State hours after the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca) signed by the two countries in 2014. The pact will allow American forces, warships and planes to access to local military camps.
In Manila, Col. Restituto Padilla, spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told reporters that Manila had offered Washington eight bases where it may build facilities to store equipment and supplies under the Edca.
“The list [was] prepared many months ago when we had earlier discussions,” Padilla said, adding that five military airfields, two naval bases and a jungle training camp were offered to the United States.
“These are still subject to approval and we’re going to hold final discussions about these areas,” he added.
China’s official Xinhua news agency, in an English-language commentary, said the Edca would only escalate tensions and “could push the situation to the brink of war.”
“The deal is groundless because China, which sticks to a defensive defense policy, has never coerced any country on the South China Sea issue,” it said.
The Philippines has accused China of using flashing lights and flares to challenge Philippine military flights over the contested Spratly Islands and said it wanted to see more US operations to uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the region.
US Defense Secretary Ash Carter described the Philippines as a critical ally as the United States looks to boost its presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
He said the two sides were discussing how to use the defense pact “to strengthen our maritime security capabilities and our role in keeping a peaceful region, a region without divisions, without tensions, and a region where everyone has freedom to carry out their affairs, including commerce.”
The Philippines has increasingly testy relations with China over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea, where six Asian governments are vying for control of small islands and shoals in seas that serve as a thoroughfare for about one-third of world trade.
The United States is looking to support the ill-equipped Philippine military and counter assertive Chinese action.
The Philippines has protested China’s recent test landings by aircraft on one of several artificial islands Beijing has built in the Spratlys.
Del Rosario said China’s “provocative” challenges to Philippine military flights amounted to China establishing a de facto air defense identification zone, as it did over the East China Sea.
He said the Philippines was looking at the possibility of joint activities with the United States in the South China Sea, but stopped short of saying they were considering joint patrols.
In October a US Navy warship sailed within the supposed 22-kilometer (12-nautical-mile) territorial limit of Zamora Reef, another of the features built by China.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States had an “ironclad commitment” to the security of the Philippines, and that they shared a commitment to democracy and human rights.
Nearly a century of US military presence in the Philippines ended in 1992 when Americans shut their bases, including the largest military facilities outside the US mainland, after Filipino senators voted a year earlier not to renew the lease on the bases amid a tide of nationalism.
But the maritime dispute with Beijing has prompted Manila to reach out to Washington.
Clark, Subic offered
Padilla said the facilities offered to the Americans were Basa Air Base in Pampanga province, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province, Camp Antonio Bautista and a naval base in Palawan province, Camp Benito Ebuen and the naval base in Cebu province, Clark Air Base in Pampanga and Lumbia air field in Cagayan de Oro.
“Many of these sites are already our exercise sites,” Padilla said.
The Americans are also seeking access to three civilian seaports and airfields on Luzon, including Subic Bay, a former US Navy base, a senior defense official told Reuters.
Last year, more than 100 US Navy ships docked in Subic and two advanced nuclear-powered stealth submarines made visits in the first two weeks of this year.
“Subic is important to the Americans because it is one of the few areas in the country where they can actually dock safely,” said a defense official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
No new deal
Also Wednesday, Supreme Court spokesperson Theodore Te noted that the Inquirer’s banner headline on Tuesday “tended to mislead,” when it said “SC allows more US forces to base here.”
Te said the court decision simply affirmed the rotational presence, not the permanent basing, of US forces in the Philippines.
The high court ruling was clear in saying that Edca should remain within the bounds of both the 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement and the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, he said.
“The executive agreement must not go beyond the parameters, limitations and standards set by the law and/or treaty that the former purports to implement and must not unduly expand the international obligation expressly mentioned or necessarily implied in the law or treaty,” Te pointed out. With reports from the wires, Jaymee T. Gamil and Tarra Quismundo
Subscribe to INQUIRER PLUS to get access to The Philippine Daily Inquirer & other 70+ titles, share up to 5 gadgets, listen to the news, download as early as 4am & share articles on social media. Call 896 6000.