US secures key military deal with the Philippines to counter Beijing’s growing regional influence

The Philippines signed an agreement with the United States on Thursday that will allow American soldiers free access to four of its new military bases at a time of growing unease in the Indo-Pacific region over China’s burgeoning influence.

The deal, which was sealed during a February 1 visit to Manila by the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, means more US troops near China and would enable Washington to better monitor Chinese movements in the disputed South China Sea and around Taiwan.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr granted the US army access to four additional military bases, mainly in the north of the archipelago. American soldiers, who already have access to five Philippine military bases, would also use these bases for joint training, storing equipment and supplies and building facilities, but not to establish a permanent presence.

Back to pro-Washington

The benefit of this military agreement for Washington may seem obvious: “It allows, first of all, to complete the military encirclement of China in the China Sea region. In the north, the United States can use the American base in Okinawa, Japan, and the bases in South Korea, while in the south, American power can now be asserted from the bases in the Philippines,” said Danilo delle Fave, a specialist in security issues in Asia and associate researcher at the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) in Verona, an international group of experts in international security issues.

More importantly, it signals a return to a pro-Washington stance for a country that occupies a key geostrategic position at a time when the US and China are waging a war of influence in the Indo-Pacific region. The US administration can “finally say again that it can count on the Philippines in the event of a conflict with Beijing”, said Tom Smith, an expert on the Philippines and security issues in Southeast Asia at Portsmouth University.

Historically, the archipelago has had a love-hate relationship with the US. On paper, Manila is Washington’s oldest regional ally by virtue of a military cooperation agreement dating back to 1951.

But the reality is far more complex. Firstly, because of serious issues linked to the huge US-owned military bases – handed over in the early 1990s – that damaged the reputation of the US military. “There were cases of sex trafficking and prostitution that have left their mark,” Smith said.

Nor was the Philippines of particular strategic importance to the US in the East-West confrontation that dominated the Cold War years.

But Washington again began to make diplomatic overtures towards Manila “after the September 11 attacks, because the Philippines was viewed as a potentially useful ally in the fight against Islamist terrorism”, Smith said. The US army started training Filipino soldiers to better fight the Abu Sayyaf terrorist movement, which has a strong presence in the southern Philippine islands.

A bridge between regions

Since then, the Philippines’ strategic value has only increased. The country has “regained the same importance as it had during the Second World War”, said delle Fave. At that time the Philippines was the main land barrier between Asia and the United States. During the Second World War it blocked the way to Japan, whereas today it limits the scope of China’s operations.

In the eyes of both Washington and Beijing, “the Philippines is a bridge between the two regions – America and Asia – and whoever is favoured by Manila can assert themselves more easily on one side of the Pacific or the other”, delle Fave explained.

Under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte between 2016 and 2022, the US watched nervously as its oldest Asian “ally” edged closer to China. The controversial former Philippine leader openly courted Beijing, proclaiming his ideological allegiance to the Chinese regime, while repeatedly criticising former US president Barack Obama.

Duterte offered his allegiances to Beijing in exchange for some promises of investment in infrastructure and the abandonment of Chinese claims to the Spratly Islands, which have been at the heart of Sino-Philippine tensions since the 1990s.

Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has led the Philippines since June 2022, had pursued a similar foreign policy strategy and sought to “deepen collaboration with Beijing” when he visited there in early January.

Into the arms of the Americans

But just three weeks later, the Philippine government made an unexpected 180° turn by signing a new military agreement with the US. “The failure of Duterte’s diplomatic approach is essentially due to Chinese intransigence regarding Beijing’s territorial claims on the Spartleys,” delle Fave explained.

In the last six years, Beijing not only refused to compromise but failed to increase investments in the Philippines. The January trip was a way for Marcos Jr. to offer China one last chance before “recognising that the US offer is the most attractive to Manila”, said Smith. The US offer included a promise to defend the Philippine fleet if it is attacked by the Chinese in the disputed South China Sea, a potential key flashpoint.

China’s uncompromising stance appears to have driven the Philippines into the arms of the Americans, but it could come back to bite them. Not only will Beijing find it more difficult to play hardball in the South China Sea now that there are US troops stationed in the Philippines, but these new bases are just over 300 km from Taiwan, strengthening the US’s ability to intervene if a conflict erupts between China and Taiwan.

“China preferred the certainty of having a foothold on the islands it claims rather than a pledge of allegiance from a country that has already changed its mind several times,” said delle Fave.

The Chinese are far from having had their final say.

Beijing authorities on Thursday denounced the signing of the new military agreement, saying it would contribute to fuelling tensions in the region. But “raising the tone on the Chinese side is only the first step”, according to Smith. He believes that China will want to prove that it can continue to navigate safely in Philippine territorial waters. This will likely lead to more incidents involving Chinese and Filipino vessels. But for the time being, none of the countries involved – China, the Philippines and the United States – seem to have any interest in seeing such incidents escalate into a full-blown security crisis.   

This article is a translation of the original in French.


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