The United States is increasing its military presence in the Philippines, both countries announced on Thursday, adding American access to four more bases and asserting the Southeast Asian nation’s role as a key strategic partner for Washington in the event of a conflict with China over Taiwan.
The agreement was announced as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was in the Philippines, on a trip that began on Tuesday. The deal would allow Washington to position military equipment and rotate its troops into a total of nine military bases controlled by the Philippines.
The agreement comes amid growing fears in the region over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the island democracy China claims as its territory. Among the five treaty allies that the United States has in Asia, the Philippines is geographically closest to Taiwan, with its northernmost land mass of Luzon just 124 miles away. American officials say that getting access to the Philippines’ northernmost islands is crucial to countering China in the event of an attack on Taiwan.
Three decades ago, the U.S. presence in the Philippines was a sore point among many Filipinos. The military bases maintained by the Americans for nearly a century in the Philippines were seen to be a vestige of American colonialism. In 1992, the United States had to shut down its last American base in the Philippines after street protests and a decision by the Philippine Senate to discontinue the American military presence.
But the calculus has largely shifted now because of growing Chinese aggression in the region. The Philippines, which has a substantially smaller navy than China’s, hopes to get American support to ward off Beijing’s continued military incursions in the South China Sea. Manila and Beijing have been locked in a long-running dispute over waters that both sides claim as their own.
The United States is shoring up its presence in the Philippines, its oldest treaty ally in Asia, after relations deteriorated during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term, which ended last year. Since he took office last June, President Ferdinand E. Marcos has sought to revive the relationship, saying he “cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner.”