To help address security challenges in SCS amid China’s military rise
The United States and the Philippines have agreed to restart joint patrols in the South China Sea as the longtime allies seek to counter China’s military rise, a US Defense Department statement said.
The two countries had suspended maritime patrols in the hotly contested area under the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
During a visit to Manila by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, he and Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez “agreed to restart joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea to help address (security) challenges,” the statement said Thursday (Friday, Manila time).
The officials had also announced a deal to give US troops access to another four bases in “strategic areas” in the Southeast Asian nation.
Beijing’s growing assertiveness on Taiwan and its building of bases in the disputed South China Sea have given fresh impetus to Washington and Manila to strengthen their partnership.
Given the Philippines’ proximity to Taiwan and its surrounding waters, its cooperation would be key in the event of a conflict with China, which a four-star US Air Force general has warned could happen as early as 2025.
The agreement on joint patrols was made “at the last minute” of Thursday’s defense talks between Austin and Galvez, a senior Philippines official told AFP on Friday.
“There is firm agreement that we will discuss guidelines of how to do these joint patrols,” said the official, who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
“There will have to be follow up discussions… (about) exactly what we want to do, exactly where we want to do things, how often,” and whether naval or coast guard vessels would participate in the patrols, the official added.
“Of course, the devil is going to be in the details, so technically if we don’t agree in the end about how we want to do it, then it’s not going to go forward.
Austin earlier clarified the United States is not interested in building permanent bases in the Philippines under EDCA where American troops can be stationed on a rotating basis and where the US can store fuel and equipment.
“I just want to be clear that we are not seeking permanent basing in the Philippines, as you heard us say in our statements, EDCA is a collaborative agreement that enables rotational activities,” he said in a briefing shortly after his meeting with Galvez Thursday afternoon.
He also said these EDCA locations are a key pillar of training and opportunities to strengthen the interoperability of both Philippines and US forces.
“It also provides us the ability to respond effectively to humanitarian issues and also disaster relief and other types of crisis, not just for the Philippines but for the regions we are in,” Austin said.
In the same press conference, Galvez said these four new EDCA locations would be revealed once they have finished consulting with the local communities where these facilities would be located.
“The President wanted that all actions will be consulted with our local governments and also wanted to see that these agreements of the four EDCA sites will be finished, ” he added.
Finalized after eight rounds of talks in August 2013, the EDCA which was signed in 2014 allows US troops access to designated Philippine military facilities, the right to build facilities, and position equipment, aircraft, and vessels, but rules out permanent basing.
Under the EDCA, the Philippine government is working with the US to build the future facilities in Cesar Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay Military Reservation in Nueva Ecija; Lumbia Airfield in Cagayan de Oro City; Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan; and Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu province.
Asked what capabilities are needed to boost the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), Galvez said the military needs more heavy and medium-lift capability to boost its disaster response missions.
Galvez said this means more C-130 cargo transports and S-70i “Black Hawk” helicopters, which the AFP has already configured for search and rescue missions.
Aside from this, the DND chief said the AFP needs more assets to defend the country’s maritime domain.
This includes the capability to detect submarines in the WestPhilippine Sea, Galvez said.
On Friday, Ambassador to Washington Jose Manuel Romualdez said thelatest agreement between the United States and the Philippines is not directed at any country, even though analysts say it would enable American troops to better protect nearby Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.
“Every country has its own interpretation. To us, we are only doingwhat is rightfully our right to defend ourselves. None of these moves are being directed to any country,” Romualdez told CNN Philippines.
Romualdez was responding to the Chinese Embassy’s statement accusing the United States of using the Philippines against China.
Beijing said Austin “smeared China on the issue of the South China Sea to advance the anti-China political agenda of the US.”
Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo said the Philippine-US alliance was “rock solid” after Austin met with Philippine officials.
“We identified key initiatives to improve mutual understanding of our priorities and challenges and to strengthen our relationship in ways that would secure our peoples,” he said in a Twitter post.
Senators welcomed the agreement with the United States.
Senator Francis Tolentino said he welcomed “defense and security upgrades with reliable allies like the United States,” noting that these must be anchored on “solid constitutional foundations.”
Senator Francis Escudero noted that the expansion was well within the bounds of EDCA and will help promote regional stability.
On the other hand, Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Ralph Recto said that as the number of EDCA facilities have increased, the administration should brief Congress and tell the public where the additional bases will be.
“National security is not harmed by that candor. But any secrecy will deal transparency, an avowed hallmark of this administration, a serious blow,” he said in a statement.
“The men from Washington who came to town said they would like to speed up EDCA’s implementation. If that is what they desire, then what is the ultimate goal?
“Are we being built up as their armed garrison in the Pacific as a tripwire to Chinese expansionism?” he added.
He said that while the agreement is an administration prerogative he supports, he wants that the agreement be made public and the pros and cons be told.
On Thursday, China lashed out at the United States for its “zero-sum game mentality” and warned the Philippines against allowing itself to be “dragged into trouble waters.”
“The United States, out of its self interests and zero-sum game mentality, continues to step up military posture in this region. Its actions escalate regional tension and undermine regional peace and stability,” the embassy said.
“It is hoped that the Philippine side stays vigilant and resists from being taken advantage of and dragged into troubled waters,” it added.