PRESIDENT FERDINAND R. MARCOS, JR. welcomes United States Defense Chief Lloyd Austin III at Malacañang Palace on Feb. 2. — NOEL B. PABALATE/PPA POOL

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

THE PHILIPPINES has given the United States greater access to its military bases, their defense chiefs said on Thursday, amid mounting concern over China’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea and tension over self-ruled Taiwan.

The US would be given access to four more locations under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippines Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said in a joint news conference at the Philippine military headquarters in Manila.

Mr. Austin, in the Philippines for talks as the US seeks to extend its security options as part of efforts to deter any move by China against self-ruled Taiwan, referred to the Philippine decision as a “big deal” as he and his counterpart reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering their alliance.

“Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Mr. Austin, whose visit follows one by US Vice President Kamala Harris in November, which included a stop at Palawan island in the South China Sea.

“We discussed concrete actions to address destabilizing activities in the waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea, and we remain committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack,” Mr. Austin said, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

“That’s just part of our efforts to modernize our alliance. And these efforts are especially important as People’s Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

China said greater US access to Philippine military bases undermined regional stability and raised tensions. “This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and endangers regional peace and stability,” China’s Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a news briefing.

“Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.”

The additional sites under the EDCA bring to nine the number of military bases the US would have access to. It has announced it was allocating more than $82 million for infrastructure at the existing sites.

The EDCA allows US access to Philippine military bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and the building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not for a permanent presence.

Projects at five other Philippine military bases that the US can access under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 were almost complete, they said in a joint statement posted on the Philippine Defense department’s Facebook page. These show that the enforcement of the military pact is being fast-tracked, they added.

“Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities,” they said.

The addition of new EDCA sites would also boost Washington’s humanitarian support for the Philippines during calamities and enable the two countries to “respond to other shared challenges.”

“The Philippine-US alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad,” they said. “We look forward to the opportunities these new sites will create to expand our cooperation together.”

Mr. Austin was part of the military under the Obama administration. He was responsible for military operations in the Middle East and Afghanistan and led the US and its allies in battling ISIS in Iraq and Syria. He retired from the army in 2016.

Mr. Austin and Mr. Galvez did not specify the sites that would be opened to US access. The former Philippine military chief had said the United States had asked for access to bases on the main northern island of Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, and on Palawan in the southwest, near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Outside the military headquarters, dozens of protesters opposed to a US military presence chanted anti-US slogans and called for the EDCA to be scrapped.

Before meeting his counterpart, Ms. Austin met Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. and assured him of US support. “We stand ready to help you in any way we can,” he said.

Ties between the United States and its former colony were soured under the previous president, Rodrigo R. Duterte, who made overtures toward China and was known for anti-US rhetoric and threats to downgrade military ties. 

Mr. Marcos has met US President Joseph R. Biden twice since winning a landslide victory in an election last year and reiterated he could not see a future for his country without its longtime treaty ally.

“I have always said, it seems to me, the future of the Philippines and for that matter the Asia-Pacific will always have to involve the United States,” Mr. Marcos told Mr. Austin.

After assuming his Defense post under the Biden government, Mr. Austin led Pentagon’s efforts to quash the rise of right-wing extremism and white supremacy in the military.

“The one selling point perhaps with Austin is he is nominally trying to combat right wing extremism in the US military,” Hansley A. Juliano, a political economy researcher, said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “It’s therefore not unreasonable for civil society groups to engage him in this vein vis-a-vis the US support for human rights and democratization.”

Political analysts have said it is strategic for the US to have EDCA sites in the country’s north due to tension between China and Taiwan, which is just 390 kilometers away from northern Philippines.

“Filipinos must not allow our country to be used as a staging ground for any US military intervention in the region,” Bagong Alyansang Makabayan said in a statement.

“The US is engaged in provocations with China using the issue of Taiwan,” it said. “Allowing US use of our facilities will drag us into this conflict which is not aligned with our national interests.”

The US had a naval base in Subic, Olongapo City until 1991, when the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the lease. The decision led to the dismantling of an American air base in Clark, Pampanga. The two sites, which are now economic hubs, are located north of the capital Manila.   

Terry L. Ridon, a former lawmaker and public infrastructure expert, said the Philippine government should ensure that weapons of mass destruction are not stockpiled at EDCA sites.

“EDCA remains limited to agreed locations within Philippine military bases and should remain so until the agreement is jointly amended by Manila and Washington,” he said in a Messenger chat.

Mr. Juliano said Philippine authorities should ensure that EDCA would not enable any intervention in local security policy and would not tolerate any abuses by American forces.

Mr. Marcos’ father, the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, fostered close ties with the US before he was ousted by a popular uprising in February 1986.

Former US president Ronald Reagan granted him asylum, allowing his family’s exile in Honolulu, Hawaii. — with Reuters