MANILA, Philippines – US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will meet with President Benigno Aquino III next week to discuss the ongoing negotiations for increased presence of American soldiers in the Philippines, the US Department of Defense said in a statement released Friday (Saturday in Manila).
Hagel will also be meeting with his counterpart, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario during his two day visit on August 29-30.
The agreement that would pave the way for more US troops to be stationed in the Philippines and give them access to the military facilities is being presented to Filipinos by the Philippine government as a deterrent to China’s increasing presence in the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China sea that the Philippines claims to be within its exclusive economic zone.
The Philippines and China continue to be locked in a territorial dispute, particularly over Panatag Shoal off Zambales province and the Ayungin Shoal in the Kalayaan Island Group or Spratlys.
According to the US statement, Hagel will talk to President Aquino, Gazmin, and Del Rosario “about ongoing negotiations for a framework agreement that would allow US forces to operate on Philippine military bases and in Philippine territory and waters to help build Philippine armed forces capacity in maritime security and maritime domain awareness.”
The US had maintained a military presence in the Philippines from the colonial era right up to the time the Philippine Senate voted against extending the military bases agreement in 1991.
Hagel is currently in Honolulu, Hawaii, the first stop prior to his weeklong, four nation tour of Southeast Asia for a meeting of defense ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei.
Hagel will be in Manila on August 29 and 30.
The Philippines and United States began negotiations on the increased presence of US soldiers in the Philippines two weeks ago. US troops are currently maintaining a presence in the Philippines under the two countries’ visiting forces agreement.
The new agreement being hammered out would not include operational details so as not to compromise national security, the Department of Foreign Affairs has said.
Philippine negotiators have explained having a framework agreement was necessary as military activities are not specified in the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Mutual Defense Treaty.
The DFA has explained the need for an increased presence of US troops to have “a minimum credible defense posture… to enhance maritime domain awareness and develop a deterrence capability.”
“This can be accomplished through high-impact and high-value joint exercises which promote interoperability and capacity building that will also bolster humanitarian assistance and disaster response,” it said.
The Philippine government maintains that its new defense policy is not for a basing agreement for the US military which the Constitution prohibits.