The US is seeking to expand its military presence in the Philippines

MANILA – The United States is seeking to expand its military presence in the Philippines as part of a 2014 defense pact, US and Filipino officials said, one of the initiatives to be discussed during Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit focused on defending its treaty partner given China’s far-reaching territorial claims.

Harris will hold talks with President Ferdinand Jr. and other officials Monday during a two-day visit that will include a trip to western Palawan province overlooking the disputed South China Sea that occupies virtually all of Beijing.

She was expected to reaffirm the US commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty should Philippine forces, ships and aircraft come under attack in the disputed waters.

“The United States and the Philippines stand together as friends, partners and allies,” Harris’ staffers said in a statement. “Now and always the US commitment to defending the Philippines is adamant.”

Harris would also launch a series of US aid and projects to help the Philippines deal with climate change and looming energy and food shortages.

A former American colony, the Philippines was once home to one of the largest US Navy and Air Force bases outside of mainland America. The bases closed in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but American forces returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops under a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.

In 2014, the longtime allies signed the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement, allowing a larger number of American forces to remain in rotating batches inside the Philippine military camp, where they build warehouses, living quarters, shared training facilities, and store combat equipment, excluding nuclear weapons could . The Philippines could take over these buildings and facilities if the Americans leave.

After the deal was signed, the Americans began construction projects in five Filipino camps and areas, including in the south of the country where US counterterrorism forces have spent years helping to train and provide intelligence to their Filipino counterparts. Many of the projects have been delayed by legal troubles and other issues, Philippine defense officials said.

Large numbers of American forces remained in local camps in the southern city of Zamboanga and in outlying provinces while the threat from Muslim militants was at its height, which has waned in recent years. More than 100 US service members are currently in Zamboanga and three southern provinces, a Philippine military official told The Associated Press.

A US official told reporters that new areas have been identified and are being developed to expand joint security cooperation and training. He did not give details, including the type of military facilities, the locations and the number of American military personnel to be deployed at those sites, saying the projects with the Philippines must be finalized.

Philippine military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro told reporters last week that the US wants to set up military installations in five more areas in the north of the Philippines.

Two of the new areas proposed by the Americans are in the northern province of Cagayan, Bacarro said. Located across a strait from Taiwan, Cagayan could serve as a crucial outpost should tensions between China and the self-governing island that Beijing claims as its own escalate.

The other proposed sites included Palawan and Zambales provinces, he said. Both face the South China Sea and would allow an American military presence closer to the disputed waters to support Philippine forces.

The Philippine Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign troops in the country unless covered by treaties or agreements. Foreign forces are also prohibited from engaging in local combat.

Harris is scheduled to fly to Palawan on Tuesday to meet with fishermen, villagers, officials and the Coast Guard. Once there, she will visit the border island, which is at the forefront of long-simmering territorial disputes between China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, as the senior US leader.

The Philippine Coast Guard said it would welcome Harris aboard one of its largest patrol vessels, the BRP Teresa Magbanua, in Palawan, where she is scheduled to make a speech, according to Coast Guard spokesman Commodore Armand Balilo.

Harris will underscore the importance of international law, unhindered trade and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, according to the US official, who said she would uphold a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that upheld China’s vast territorial claims in the South China Sea voided sea on historic ground.

China has rejected a decision by a UN Convention on the Law of the Sea arbitration in The Hague after the Philippine government complained in 2013 about China’s increasingly aggressive stance in the disputed waters. Beijing did not participate in the arbitration.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. The US is seeking to expand its military presence in the Philippines

Sarah Y. Kim

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