The U.S. military will have access to eight or more Filipino bases for rotational deployments as part of a new defense agreement, according to Philippine media, in what looks to be a landmark basing expansion as part of the Pentagon's Asia-Pacific pivot.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will allow the U.S. to use eight bases for troop rotations, Gen. Gregorio Catapang, the Philippine military chief of staff, told ABS-CBN News.
Two of these bases are located near disputed islands in the hotly contested South China Sea: Antonio Bautista Air Base and Naval Station Carlito Cunanan.
Stars and Stripes newspaper also named the other bases Catapang said were being considered: Fort Magsaysay, in Nueva Ecija Crow Valleyin Tarlac, Basa Air Base, in Pampanga; Naval Station San Miguel, in Zambales Benito Ebuen Air Base and Naval Base Rafael Ramos in Cebu. Plans are already in place to to increase the number of rotational U.S. ships, Marines and aircraft in Subic Bay.
Pentagon officials were caught a little off guard by the news, and had little to addsay.
"We have seen the reports of General Catapang's comments and would refer you to him for clarification," said Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Pool, a Defense Department spokesman. "Given the ongoing Philippine Supreme Court review of the EDCA's constitutionality, the DoD and DND have agreed to delay implementation of the agreement. There has been informal, working-level discussion of potential locations, but no final decisions have been made nor are there any plans to begin implementing the EDCA until the Supreme Court completes its review."
The announcement hit as more than 11,000 Filipino and U.S. troops are conducting the largest amphibious exercise in at least 15 years. The Philippine military is hosting Exercise Balikatan, an annual training exercise that helps the two countries prepare for bilateral missions.
While Philippine officials tout the need for military cooperation and the ability to boost disaster relief (6,000 Filipinos died as a result of Super Typhoon HaiyanYolanda in November 2013), China is at the heart of this move. China's drive to control more sea lanes and resources the region is anchored by a huge military buildup and claims of full ownership of nearly all islands and resources in the South China Sea and East China Sea. In 2013, China set a 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone to regulate foreign military activities, and an Air Defense Identification Zone designed to control airspace above the East China Sea. The U.S. nited States responded by sending strategic bombers through the disputed zone in an act of strategic defiance.
Still, territorial clashes are increasingly common. In addition to a turf war with the Philippines over Scarborough Reef and Second Thomas Shoal, China has long-standing turmoil with Taiwan and has recently clashed with Vietnamese ships and had close calls with Japanese aircraft over the Senkaku Islands. Its most recent tactic is to use land reclamation to build air strips and outposts on reefs and islands in the South China Sea.
The EDCA, signed last year by Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg, would allow U.S. troops to build facilities, store gear, and conduct joint training exercises with the Philippine military. The Philippine courts are now addressing whether the agreement is constitutional.
Opponents within Critics in the Philippines say such a move would diminish the country's sovereignty, and have voiced concern about everything from pollution to prostitution.