Philippine officials say they will soon begin negotiations with the US on a larger military presence to help deter what they say is increasing Chinese aggression in Philippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea.
In a letter to Philippine congressional leaders, the secretaries of national defense and foreign affairs said that allowing US troops to have an “increased rotational presence” would help the country attain a “minimum credible defense” to guard its territory while it struggles to modernize its own military, one of Asia’s weakest.
A larger US presence would also mean more resources and training for responding to disasters in a nation often battered by typhoons and earthquakes, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in their letter, a copy of which was obtained on Thursday.
“The Philippines will shortly enter into consultations and negotiations with the United States on a possible framework agreement that would implement our agreed policy of increased rotational presence,” Gazmin and Del Rosario said.
The White House declined to comment, while other US officials were not available on Thursday.
The presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former US colony. The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close down major US bases at Subic and Clark, near Manila.
The Philippine constitution forbids foreign troops from being permanently based in the country, but the Senate ratified a 1999 pact with the Washington that allows temporary visits by US forces.
Gazmin and Del Rosario assured lawmakers that any new accord with Washington “will be consistent with our constitution.”
Several of China’s neighbors have been alarmed by Beijing’s recent assertiveness in claiming large areas of the South China Sea.
Manila’s desire to bolster its external defenses and security has dovetailed with Washington’s intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, where it has been fostering closer economic and military alliances with countries such as the Philippines, partly as a counterweight to China’s rising clout.
The realignment of US forces in the Asia-Pacific region also involves the deployment of up to 2,500 US Marines in northern Australia and the stationing of US combat vessels in Singapore.
Gazmin has said that additional US troops would only be allowed to have access to the country’s existing military bases under terms the Philippines would negotiate with Washington. The two sides would have to negotiate the length of any agreement allowing more US troops, planes, ships and other equipment.
Under the current Visiting Forces Agreement, hundreds of US counterterrorism troops have been allowed to stay in the Philippines’ volatile southern Mindanao region since 2002 to train Filipino soldiers battling Abu Sayyaf militants, and a handful of foreign terrorist suspects from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Gazmin and Del Rosario stressed in their letter the importance of the Philippines’ decades-old military alliance with the US, saying “this relationship is useful, not only in our diplomacy, but also in enhancing our capabilities at the vital task of territorial defense.”
The Philippines has reached out to the US for help in modernizing its outdated fleet of warships and planes, and in training its troops amid renewed tensions over the long-running territorial disputes with China.