(CNSNews.com) – In an expansion of the U.S. military presence in a longstanding Asian ally, the Philippines has approved the use of four more military bases for rotational U.S. forces to operate, train, and exercise with their local counterparts.
Two of the four sites identified on Monday, a naval base and nearby airbase in the country’s northern province of Cagayan, are located less than 300 miles from Taiwan, the self-governing island democracy that China claims as its own.
A third location is about 80 miles to the south of the two in Cagayan, and the fourth base is on the southern end of the island of Palawan, the Philippines’ westernmost province.
Palawan lies near the Spratly islands, hundreds of islets and reefs in the South China Sea that are hotly disputed between China, the Philippines, and several other countries. China rejects a U.N. tribunal’s 2016 ruling against its claims to the islands, which it calls Nansha.
China’s claims to Taiwan and to resource-rich parts of the South China Sea are among the most sensitive military-related issues in the U.S.-China relationship. Beijing defines them as non-negotiable “core interests,” dealing with its sovereignty, territorial integrity, and security.
The U.S. is not a party to the territorial claims in the South China Sea, but does insist on “freedom of navigation” in the waterway, one of the world’s busiest, and frequently sends warships and planes through the area to assert that principle.
While China views Taiwan as a rebellious province that will be reincorporated eventually – by force, if necessary – the U.S. does not support any change to the “status quo” across the Taiwan Strait, and under the Taiwan Relations Act provides military aid to help the island to defend itself.
The four bases named by the Philippines government and the Pentagon on Monday are in addition to five bases elsewhere in the archipelago that are already being used by U.S. forces, under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), signed by the two allies in 2014.
“In addition to the five existing sites, these new locations will strengthen the interoperability of the United States and Philippine armed forces and allow us to respond more seamlessly together to address a range of shared challenges in the Indo-Pacific region, including natural and humanitarian disasters,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters.
“The Department of Defense will work in lockstep with the Philippine Department of National Defense and Armed Forces to rapidly pursue modernization projects at these locations.”
Singh confirmed that the U.S. was not seeking permanent basing in the Philippines, but said there would be an increase of rotational forces in the region.
Asked whether the new locations in the north would help to enhance the ability of the U.S. to respond to a situation in the Taiwan Strait, Singh said the agreement was more about “regional readiness,” and the ability to respond to natural disasters.
Singh said she was unable to provide numbers of rotational forces that would pass through the bases, or say when the deployments would begin.
Defense Secretary Gen. Lloyd Austin announced the plans for four more EDCA bases during a visit to Manila in February, although their locations were not made public until Monday.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila in a statement last month voiced concern about the development, saying that despite the talk of responding to humanitarian disasters, “it is plain and simple that those moves are part of the U.S. efforts to encirle and contain China.”
“To bundle the Philippines into the chariots of geopolitical strife will seriously harm Philippine national interests and endanger regional peace and stability,” it said.
Meanwhile the U.S. and Philippines are soon to begin their biggest-ever annual “Balikatan” joint exercises, involving about 12,200 U.S. personnel and 5,400 Philippines troops carrying out a range of drills from April 11 to 28.
It will be the 38th iteration of the exercise, which means “shoulder to shoulder” or “shouldering the load together” in Tagalog. The number of participants this year is almost double the 9,000 who took part in 2022.
According to the U.S. Marine Corps, the exercises will include maritime security, amphibious operations, live-fire training, urban and aviation operations, cyber defense, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief preparedness.
“Field training exercise events will take place across the Philippines to test the allies’ capabilities in combined arms live-fire, information and intelligence sharing, communications between maneuver units, logistics operations, amphibious operations, and many other skill sets.”
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