The U.S. Defense Secretary is in the Philippines, talking to top officials about plans to reinforce defense ties. Meanwhile, there are signs that Manila’s rift with China over territorial disputes is growing wider.
Chuck Hagel rounded out his visits to Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei in Southeast Asia this week with a stop in the Philippines where he met with the Philippine president and defense minister.
Washington and Manila are currently hammering out guidelines that would see more U.S. troops rotating in and out of the Philippines.
At a joint news conference of the defense ministers at the Presidential Palace in Manila, Hagel reiterated the U.S. position that Washington does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines.
“That would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality," Hagel said. "Instead we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation, befitting two great allies and friends.”
Both sides have said the increased visits would mean more joint exercises and easy access to and storage of equipment. For the U.S., the increased rotations would strengthen its foothold in the region as it turns its military, diplomatic and economic sights on Asia. The new U.S. focus on Asia comes as the Philippines modernizes its own military and seeks to bolster its “minimum credible defense posture.
Earlier this week, the Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Emmanuel Bautista, fresh from a visit with his U.S. counterpart, said the Philippines’ goal is to “leverage alliances” to create a security environment that would make any outside threat “hesitate” before trying to encroach on Philippine territory.
The Philippines does not directly name China when it talks about external threats but the two countries have been locked in a diplomatic row in recent years over what the Philippines calls intrusions by Chinese surveillance and military ships into its claimed territories in the South China Sea.
It has filed dozens of diplomatic protests and has a pending arbitration case with a United Nations tribunal.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said Wednesday that China has asked that President Aquino not go to the China-ASEAN expo in Nanning next week and that he should come at a “more conducive time.” Philippine officials downplayed the apparent snub saying it was not a withdrawal of a personal invitation to the president. However, because the Philippines is a “country of honor” at this year’s expo it had been expected that the head of state would attend, as is custom.
China has reiterated that it has indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims in the resource-rich sea. The U.S. has repeatedly said it remains neutral on the competing claims.
Armed Forces Chief of Staff Bautista says the Philippines, which has heavily focused on internal security threats for decades, is looking to improve external capabilities especially in maritime security and surveillance.
At the Palace briefing, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the Philippines was ready to be a host to U.S. forces.
“As soon as the framework agreement is complete, we will provide the necessary access to all these facilities," Gazmin said. "This is not limited only to Subic, but to [other] Philippine military facilities, if necessary.”
U.S. and Philippine negotiators on the increased U.S. rotations are holding their second meeting later Friday in Washington.