US Military Presence in Manila Heats up South China Sea Rivalry

In recent years, the US and the Philippines have continued to strengthen their defense ties, which have drawn concern of China. In 2021, the US and the Philippines signed a new agreement that expands the US military presence in the country and allows US military personnel to access five military bases in the Philippines. On Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023, the US and the Philippines announced an expansion of America’s military presence in the Southeast Asian country, with US forces granted access to four additional military bases, effectively giving Washington a new way to counter China in the South China Sea. The agreement was signed during the visit of US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin. This move by the US is seen as a direct challenge to Beijing which might further escalate tensions in the region.

“I have always said that it seems to me that the future of the Philippines and for that matter the Asia-Pacific will always have to involve the United States simply because those partnerships are so strong,” said Austin.

Carlito Galvez Jr., the Philippines’ Defence Secretary, declined to name the locations of the four additional sites, saying the government needed to consult local officials first.

China and the Philippines, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan, have locked horns several times on territorial disputes over the busy and resource-rich South China Sea.

Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry accused the United States of threatening regional peace and stability with the announcement. She said that the US to widen military presence in the Philippines amid China’s fear, and that countries in the region should remain vigilant against that and avoid being coerced and used by the United States.

China has been critical of the United States’ military presence in the Philippines for a number of reasons. One major reason is — the US military presence is seen by China as a threat to its national security, as it increases Washington’s ability to project military power in the region. Additionally, China is concerned about the US’ support for the Philippines in territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea, as the US military presence in the region gives the Philippines a stronger bargaining position.

There have been several news reports and events in recent years that have further strained US-China relations with regard to the US military presence in the Philippines. Like in 2016, the US and the Philippines signed an agreement to enhance the US military presence in the country, which was met with criticism from China. In 2020, the US also deployed military assets to the Philippines to support relief efforts during a typhoon, which was seen by some as an opportunity for the US to increase its military footprint in the region.

Overall, the US military presence in the Philippines is a complex and sensitive issue, and continues to be a point of contention between the US and China in the region.

China has also been critical of the US’ support for the Philippines in its territorial disputes with China over the South China Sea. China claims nearly the entire South China Sea, including waters close to the Philippines, as its sovereign territory. The US, on the other hand, supports the Philippines’ claim to these waters and has conducted several freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the region to challenge China’s territorial claims.

The US military presence in the Philippines continues to be a source of tension between the US and China. As the US and the Philippines strengthen their defense ties, China’s concerns about the US’ ability to project military power in the region and its support for the Philippines in territorial disputes with China are likely to persist. This situation highlights the complex and rapidly evolving security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region and the challenges of managing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

[Photo by US Navy, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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