Asia pivot: US set to boost military presence in Philippines

US forces are set for an “increased rotational presence” in the Philippines, following negotiations in Manila. The two countries aim to counter China’s growing ambitions in the region.

The Pentagon currently conducts a regular joint exercise and has a rotating force of 500 troops in the Southern Philippines, but may send more soldiers and advanced equipment, or upgrade local facilities.  Officials say that no specifics have been laid out in the first round of a four-stage negotiation.

“There should be a focus on high-impact, high-value training exercises and activities that would focus on maritime security, maritime domain awareness and our perennial problem with disasters,”
said Defense Undersecretary Pio Batino, who was present at the discussion.

The Philippines was a US colony between 1898 and 1946, and the presence of American troops remains a controversial issue. The US abandoned its last base in the South Asian country in 1992.

But tensions in the region have escalated as in the past decade Beijing began to lay forceful claims to almost the entirety of the South China Sea (which the Philippines calls West Philippine Sea), that rounds the coastlines of most of the states in the region.

As disputes over potentially lucrative sea lanes and underground mineral resources have grown more bitter, Manila has made diplomatic appeals to the UN over what it calls “excessive claims”, and has sought greater assistance from the United States.

After years of being bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, Washington has also re-directed its foreign policy towards Asia, signing a docking agreement for its warships with Singapore, and bolstering its troop numbers in Australia.

Officials say that even when finalized, the new agreement will not specify exact troop numbers, and those will have to be negotiated on an annual basis. 

Philippine (L) and US (R) troops walk to their base after conducting a squad live fire exercise as part of the annual joint Philippine-US military exercise at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila on April 11, 2013. (AFP Photo/Ted Aljibe)

 

Philippine officials have also sought to reassure the domestic audience that the increased presence will only be allowed with strict stipulations.

Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta, who led the talks on his country’s side, told Reuters that the specific areas where the US troops will be stationed were to be listed, as well as their the activities and exercises. “But not the number of troops, not the operational details," he added.

Sorreta emphasized that no US facilities could be off-limits to Philippine officials (some have previously been denied access), and insisted that the country will not host nuclear weapons, and will not be used as a platform for “acts of aggression”. 

Not everyone is placated. Some politicians have objected both to the substance of the agreement, and the fact that it is likely to be signed only by the executive branch, without any input from lawmakers.

“Any policy that the government wants to implement as regards our security or military should undergo close scrutiny,”
said Senator Gregorio Honasan.

“It poses a lot of danger now that military troops and their equipment will soon arrive in the country.  It might create an impression of hostility and just add to the on-going tensions in our troubled waters.” 

A heightened US military presence in the region to offset Chinese influence will only increase tensions, argues author and journalist Afshin Rattansi.

“The idea that the United States is protecting the interests of the world against Chinese influence is clearly absurd,” Rattansi told RT. “All the United States is doing is ratcheting up military tension and pressure at a time when the world doesn’t need it.”

Several dozen anti-American supporters also staged a protest outside the main army base where the talks took place.

The next round of negotiations will take place in Washington before the end of the month.