As the Philippines looks to boost its military at a time of increasing tensions with China over territorial disputes, authorities are laying the groundwork for a military base-sharing arrangement with the United States.
Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cuisia said officials are combing through already existing security agreements between Manila and Washington to have a better idea of how a base sharing partnership would work.
In particular, Cuisia said they are studying the Visiting Forces Agreement, which, since 2002, has allowed a contingent of about 500 American troops to rotate in and out of the restive area in Mindanao where the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf Group operates.
“Let me stress, whatever we agree to must benefit the Philippines because if it will not benefit us, then we will not agree to it. It has to be mutually beneficial,” he said.
Cuisia said any shared use of bases would have to be within the framework of the Philippine Constitution. The U.S. had bases in the Philippines for almost 100 years until domestic opposition forced the last of them to close in 1992.
The plan would see more U.S. troops coming and going and American military hardware ready for use at such bases. Some of the equipment is expected to come from U.S. military hardware being withdrawn from Afghanistan as well as some equipment from Iraq.
Cuisia said the proposal would support the country’s efforts to form a “minimal credible defense” posture and help to strengthen maritime security and maritime domain awareness.
The Philippines is locked in a diplomatic dispute with China over sovereign claims in the resource-rich South China Sea. Most recently, competing claims over Scarborough Shoal and Second Thomas Shoal have raised new tensions. China, Taiwan and Vietnam claim practically the entire sea, while the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have partial claims.
But Cuisia emphasizes that having U.S. forces around is not meant to address threats from any specific country.
Carl Baker, program director of the Pacific Forum of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, said a base-sharing plan would likely be similar to the Joint Special Operations Task Force program in Mindanao.
“I think that’s sort of the model that they’re following. So they can put people on these bases on a more permanent basis without calling it ‘permanent basing,’” he said.
Baker said by hosting American forces the Philippines wants to demonstrate to the world that the United States is prepared to live up to its commitment in the two countries’ Mutual Defense Treaty. Still, the U.S. maintains a neutral position regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea and elsewhere. Baker added that U.S. officials want ready access to bases for air and sea forces in Southeast Asia.
Cuisia said the proposal is still in “informal talks” and various departments involved are waiting for President Benigno Aquino’s signal to enter into formal talks. Aquino has indicated he is open to the plan and Cuisia confirmed the Philippines wants something in place before 2016 when the president’s term ends.