US gets new Philippine bases with South China Sea, Taiwan in mind

President Marcos Jr says US military base locations include the northern Philippine province which faces the South China Sea.

U.S. Marines
Personnel of US 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit and their Philippine counterparts storm a beach to simulate a combat rubber boat during the Balikatan (shoulder-to-shoulder) military exercises in 2013 [File: Bullit Marquez/AP Photo]

Four new military bases to be used by United States forces deployed to the Philippines will be in scattered locations around the country, including in a province facing the flashpoint South China Sea, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has said.

The Marcos administration announced last month that it would allow rotating batches of US forces to indefinitely stay in four new Philippine military camps in addition to five local bases earlier designated under a 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

Locations for the new bases will include areas in the northern Philippines, a move that is likely to infuriate China as it would provide US forces with a well-situated staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan.

“There are four extra sites scattered around the Philippines – there are some in the north, there are some around Palawan, there are some further south,” Marcos told reporters on Wednesday while attending an event marking the Philippine army’s founding.

Marcos said the particular locations would be announced soon, adding that the sites would boost the country’s ability to defend the “eastern side” of its largest island, Luzon – which is the closest main Philippine island to Taiwan.

A former Philippine military chief has publicly said the US had asked for access to military bases in the provinces of Isabela, Zambales and Cagayan, all on the island of Luzon, facing north towards Taiwan, and on Palawan in the southwest, near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Some local government leaders are opposed to Marcos’s decision to allow US forces access to the country, worried they would be dragged into a conflict if one arose between the US and China over Taiwan.

Marcos said on Wednesday that he had reached out to local government officials to convey the importance of the expanded US military presence in their areas.

Marcos “believes that the officials will come around to accept [the agreed US military] sites in their areas”, local media outlet reported.

The US has committed $80m to infrastructure investments at the five current bases: the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, Basa Air Base in Pampanga, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu and Lumbia Air Base in Mindanao.

Addressing Philippine troops on Wednesday, Marcos told them to be vigilant as the external threat to the country’s security was becoming more “complex” and “unpredictable”. Without giving specifics, Marcos said he was aware of an “emerging threat” to the country’s territory, which he said would require “adjustments in our strategy”.

“The external security environment is becoming more complex. It is becoming more unpredictable,” he said.

China has repeatedly accused Washington of taking steps to contain the Chinese militarily and of driving a wedge between Beijing and its Asian neighbours such as the Philippines.

“Creating economic opportunities and jobs through military cooperation is tantamount to quenching thirst with poison and gouging flesh to heal wounds,” the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a recent statement.

“Such cooperation will seriously endanger regional peace and stability and drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and damage its economic development at the end of the day,” the embassy said.

US and Philippine forces are due next month to hold one of their largest combat exercises, called Balikatan – Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies