PH, US to restart joint patrols in South China Sea

Lloyd Austin III, shown here as he walks behind DefenseSecretary Carlito Galvez Jr. following a joint press conference at Camp Aguinaldo on Thursday

MAJOR STEPS Two major announcements on security cooperation have marked the Philippine visit of US defense chief Lloyd Austin III, shown here as he walks behind Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. following a joint press conference at Camp Aguinaldo on Thursday. —AFP

The Philippines and the United States have agreed to restart joint patrols in the South China Sea, resuming an activity put on hold during the Duterte administration and prompting an immediate objection from China.

It marked a second major step taken by the Marcos administration toward stronger security cooperation with Washington and formalized during the visit of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III. On Thursday, Austin and his Filipino counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr., announced that the Philippines had granted American forces access to more of its military bases, amid concerns over Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea and threats to invade Taiwan.

The agreements come as the allies seek to repair ties that were fractured under then President Rodrigo Duterte, who favored China over his country’s former colonial master. The new administration of President Marcos has been keen to reverse that.

According to a Pentagon statement on Friday, Austin and Galvez “agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea” to help address regional security challenges in the region.

Austin and Galvez would meet again in spring at the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Washington to further discuss the planned joint patrols, the Pentagon said, adding: “Both leaders agreed to look at opportunities to include other like-minded partners in cooperative defense activities.”

The agreement on joint patrols was made “at the last minute” of Thursday’s defense talks between Austin and Galvez, a senior Philippine official told Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Friday.

“There is firm agreement that we will discuss guidelines of how to do these joint patrols,” said the official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

“There will have to be follow-up discussions … (about) exactly what we want to do, exactly where we want to do things, how often,” and whether naval or coast guard vessels would participate in the patrols, the official added.

Austin assurance

“Of course, the devil is going to be in the details, so technically if we don’t agree in the end about how we want to do it, then it’s not going to go forward.”During a meeting with Filipino defense officials at Camp Aguindalo on Thursday, Austin said the US commitment to the security of the Philippines, one of its longtime defense allies in the Asia-Pacific, remained “ironclad.” He stressed that the 51-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty between the two nations “extends to Philippine armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft anywhere in the South China Sea.”

“We shall continue to work towards maintaining a stable, rule-based, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region,” the American official later said during a press briefing. “Along with partner countries, we strongly oppose any unilateral action or attempt to disrupt current world order and share the same views that all countries should resolve any issue peacefully and adhere to the international law, particularly the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea.”

Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel Romualdez earlier said Germany and France had also expressed their willingness to conduct joint patrols with Filipinos in the South China Sea, particularly in the West Philippine Sea.

Austin and Galvez have described the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca), the governing pact allowing American access to Philippine bases, as a key pillar of alliance cooperation and interoperability between the forces of the two treaty allies in responding to natural disasters and other crises, including those that may occur in the South China Sea.

No permanent bases

Four new sites will be added to the existing five military camps where the United States can preposition personnel and equipment. Galvez said the locations of the additional sites would be revealed after consultations with the host local communities had been completed.

Austin on Thursday also stressed that the United States was not interested in building permanent bases in the country. “In terms of Edca locations, I just want to be clear that we are not seeking permanent basing in the Philippines. As you heard us say in our statements, Edca is a collaborative agreement that enables rotational activities,” he noted.

The country once hosted two of the largest US military installations on foreign soil, which mainly served as launchpads for American troops fighting in the Vietnam War. The bases were eventually shut and handed over to Philippine control in 1991, as the 1947 military basing agreement expired and the Senate voted to reject a new treaty extending American presence.

In a statement on Friday, the Chinese Embassy in Manila said Austin’s visit to the Philippines had “smeared” Beijing on the South China Sea issue, warning that the latest US actions would “escalate regional tension and undermine regional peace and stability.”

“Such moves contradict the common aspiration of regional countries to seek peace, cooperation and development, and run counter to the common aspiration of the Filipino people to pursue sound economic recovery and a better life in cooperation with China,” it said.

The embassy said it “hoped that the Philippine side stays vigilant and resists from being taken advantage of and dragged into troubled waters.”

Launched under P-Noy

“China always holds that defense and security cooperation between countries should be conducive to regional peace and stability, not target against any third party, even less to harm the interests of a third party,” it added.

The first maritime patrols jointly conducted by the United States and the Philippines in the South China Sea were conducted in March 2016 during the presidency of Benigno Aquino III.

Visiting Manila at the time, then US defense chief Ash Carter said the patrols should not be taken as a provocation and that Washington was just “trying to tamp down tensions” in the region.

For the Philippine side, then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said such US presence in the South China Sea would “deter uncalled-for actions by China.”Around that period, the US military was keeping nearly 300 personnel in the country, including Air Force special operations forces with combat aircraft.

In October 2016, as Duterte warmed up to China, then Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced the suspension of the joint patrols, a status still unchanged when Duterte’s term ended in June last year.

—With a report from AFP