The US and the Philippines begin formal negotiations this week to increase rotational presence of US forces in the Southeast Asian country, deploying aircraft, ships, supplies and troops for humanitarian and maritime security operations.
The widening military cooperation, which includes the use of local bases for temporary deployment, signals rapidly warming security relations between the allies as the Philippines looks to the US to help counter a newly assertive China.
“We stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance to do what is necessary to defend what is ours, to secure our nation and to keep our people safe,” Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario told a news conference at the main Philippine army base in Manila.
Del Rosario said the security framework agreement would improve maritime security while the Philippine military builds up its own capability for territorial defense.
The talks coincide with a resurgence of US warships, planes and personnel in the region as Washington turns its attention to China and shifts its foreign, economic and security policy toward Asia.
Friction between China and the Philippines, and other countries in the region, over disputed territories in the oil and gas rich South and East China seas has surged since last year due to several naval standoffs and fraying diplomatic efforts to forge a regional agreement on maritime conduct.
Actual negotiations for a new agreement begin tomorrow in Manila and both sides hope to conclude talks this year, or after four rounds of discussions, said Carlos Sorreta, head of the US desk at the Philippine Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“It’s not a basing agreement,” Sorreta, spokesman for the four-member negotiating team, told a news conference.
The Philippines kicked out US military bases in 1992 and years later allowed US troops to return for training and joint exercises. The new deal will expand these activities.
The allies have been in talks since 2011, even before US President Barack Obama announced his administration’s “pivot to Asia” policy as Washington withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These negotiations will lead to incremental security benefits and cooperation rather than a fundamental shift in the regional military balance of power,” Patrick Cronin, of the US-based Center for a New American Security, told reporters. “These talks are an important symbol of a refashioned alliance.”
Cronin said the upgrading of the alliance “will serve the interests of both nations and the region,” adding that the pre-positioned equipment would improve readiness to deal with natural disasters and other contingencies.
Left-wing activists criticized Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s government for allowing a de facto basing agreement with the US.
“The Philippines will be one giant weapons depot for US forces,” said Renato Reyes of Bayan (“nation”), an umbrella organization of anti-US activist groups.
Philippine officials said the new military agreement did not need any approval from lawmakers, but the negotiating team promised to brief the Philippine Congress and the press at the end of every round of talks.
Sorreta insisted the new deal would not give US forces exclusive use of local facilities or a permanent presence.
“We are engaging in this exercise of negotiations not to please the United States, but in pursuit of our own interests,” Sorreta said. “We are certainly for peace, but we are not for appeasement.”