A Filipino staff sergeant talks with a Marine during Amphibious Landing Exercise 2013 in the Philippines. (Sgt. Matthew Troyer / Marine Corps)
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Marines may soon head to the Philippines on rotational deployments as U.S. and Philippine officials discuss strengthening an already tight military partnership to counter China’s rise to a major regional power.
The talks center on an “access agreement” that would allow the U.S. to temporarily base Marines and sailors at military facilities there. Navy ships would be allowed to dock in Subic Bay, the former U.S. naval base that was closed in the early 1990s. That could give the U.S. door-step access to the contested South China Sea.
Laura Seal, a spokeswoman with the State Department, said an access agreement would increase opportunities for joint military training and exercises and allow the pre-positioning of equipment and supplies, enabling the U.S. to respond quickly to disasters. Air Force Maj. Rebecca Garcia, a public affairs officer with U.S. Pacific Command, said both governments are looking for ways enhance training to increase interoperability for defense, humanitarian assistance and disaster response, counterterrorism and nonproliferation.
Thousands of Marines already participate in training events with their Filipino counterparts. By the end of fiscal year 2013, more than 4,200 Marines will have participated in various exercises in the Philippines, said Chuck Little, deputy director of public affairs with Marine Corps Forces Pacific.
While Little declined to comment on what this type of arrangement might mean for Marines, retired Air Force Col. Carl Baker, who studies the Philippines closely as a Hawaii-based defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it could mean short-term rotations for several thousand troops so they could participate in more small-scale training events in the country.
The potential longer-term presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines is still a touchy issue two decades after the U.S. left its huge, long-standing bases there, including Naval Station Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. Officials with both countries say the push is part of an attempt to work more closely together — not an invitation to re-establish former bases or a permanent presence.
Baker said the talks are a sign that officials in the Philippines clearly recognize an existential maritime threat from China.
“For them, it’s a significant shift away from the internal focus on terrorism and counterterrorism threats [toward] a focus on external defense, which is a significant shift for the Philippine defense establishment,” Baker said.
An agreement would mark the realization of U.S. officials’ long-held desire for more systematic access to the former U.S. bases.
Meanwhile, major annual exercises with the Philippines are scheduled to continue. Marines take part in two major bilateral exercises, Balikatan and Amphibious Landing Exercise (PHIBLEX), Little said, and several smaller training events that aim to develop expertise in disaster response, logistics or tactical air control.
Baker said he expects more air exercises as the Philippine government invests in rebuilding its air force. A stronger emphasis on island defense is also likely, much like the amphibious training Japanese forces recently conducted with Marines off the coast of California, Exercise Dawn Blitz.
“I haven’t seen any evidence of this yet, but I would anticipate that the Philippines would push for that sort of activity — ground forces trying to engage in some sort of expeditionary or maritime, from the sea, kind of activity,” Baker said.