Manila, Philippines - The Philippines is moving to strengthen ties with the United States, granting U.S. forces access to an additional four military sites as concerns about a more coercive and aggressive China continue to grow.
The deal, which brings the total number of Philippine military sites eligible for help from the U.S. military to nine, came as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrapped up a two-day visit to the Philippines and a series of meetings with the country's top military and national security officials.
A joint statement from the U.S. and the Philippines Thursday did not name the location of the four sites but said the locations would "allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines and respond to other shared challenges."
Austin's visit, and the agreement, follows months of high-level talks between the U.S. and the Philippines aimed at mending relations between the two countries and at finding ways to deal with China, which has increasingly trampled on the Philippines' territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., while not naming China, described the regional tensions Thursday as "very complicated" and said that "it is something that we can only navigate properly with the help of our partners and our allies."
"It seems to me the future of the Philippines, and for that matter the Asia Pacific, will always have to involve the United States simply because those partnerships are so strong and they're so historically embedded in our common psyches," Marcos said while welcoming Austin to the presidential palace.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin III shake hands with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. during a courtesy call at the Malacanang Palace in Manila, Feb. 2, 2023.
Since signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the Philippines in 2014, the U.S. has poured $82 million into improving infrastructure at the five existing sites: Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation, Lumbia Air Base, Antonio Bautista Air Base, and Mactan Benito Ebuen Air Base.
The U.S. also has about 500 troops stationed in the Philippines. Of those, 150 are based in Zamboanga, a city on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao that has come under repeated attack by terrorists, including some connected to the Islamic State terror group's East Asia affiliate.
Senior U.S. officials are hopeful that cooperation and lessons learned from more than 20 years of counterterrorism efforts will carry over as the two countries expand their military ties to take on new challenges.
US Defense Officials Hopeful for Deal with Manila
"This relationship is strong and we will continue to work hard to strengthen it further," Austin said Thursday after meeting with Philippine acting Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr.
Austin said the agreement on access to four additional Philippine military sites will allow the U.S. to improve training and respond more effectively to both humanitarian emergencies and to bolster training and modernization efforts.
"This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability," he said in response to a question from VOA. "It is not about permanent basing, but it is a big deal. It's a really big deal."
And while not directly tied to the agreement to give U.S. forces access to the additional Philippine military sites, both Austin and his Philippine counterpart said Beijing's behavior cannot be ignored.
"We discussed concrete actions," Austin said of the talks with Galvez. "These efforts are especially important as People's Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine [South China] Sea."
Galvez, for his part, said the Philippines shares the U.S. vision for a "stable, rule-based, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region."
"This approach which we hope to jointly undertake is in line with the guidance of President Ferdinand Marcos for the Defense department to make sure that not an inch of our nation's territory will be lost," Galvez said, adding the visit by the U.S. defense secretary "is symbolic to all of us that the U.S. will always be there for us."
Defense officials from both countries, however, admit more work still needs to be done.
While Manila is now committed to giving Washington access to help modernize another four of its military sites, no decision has been made on which sites will be chosen.
Galvez said a number of potential military sites are still going through a process of inspections and evaluations, and that the Philippine government also intends to consult with local governments prior to making any final decisions.
Galvez also suggested priority could be given to military sites affected or threatened by climate change.
It also remains unclear how many additional U.S. troops will deploy to the Philippines, on a rotational basis, to aid with the training and modernization efforts.
Senior U.S. defense officials have said most, if not all, of the infrastructure improvements at the initial five sites covered by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement have been contracted out to Philippines-based companies, giving a boost to the local economies.
Ukraine - F-16s
Despite the heavy focus on China during his five-day trip to South Korea and the Philippines, the U.S. defense secretary said Thursday in Manila that he remains concerned about developments in Ukraine.
Yet despite a growing openness by some U.S. allies to the idea of providing Ukraine with U.S.-made F-16 fighter jets, Austin echoed U.S. President Joe Biden and said giving Ukraine the jets is not under consideration.
"We're focused on providing Ukraine the capability that it needs to be effective in its upcoming, anticipated counteroffensive in the spring," Austin said in response to a question from VOA.
"You've heard us talk about artillery, air defense, we ... made a big push to provide more armored vehicle capability," he said. "All of those things are in play. And we're also increasing the training that we're providing the Ukrainians so that these higher-end platforms they can effectively use in combat."