This week American and Philippine officials held talks on expanding maritime security support from Washington, at a time of escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Officials in Manila are stressing that no permanent bases are being proposed.
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta said Philippine negotiators stressed their country’s major concerns in the first round of talks between the two countries Wednesday.
“Particularly full respect for Philippine sovereignty, non-permanence of U.S. troops and no U.S. basing in the Philippines, full Philippine control and authority over facilities, the mutuality of benefits and the respect for the provision against nuclear weapons,” he said.
At a news briefing in Manila Thursday with no U.S. negotiators present, officials emphasized they are still working on general outlines for the deal and said they could not give specifics of what it would allow. They said the militaries of both countries would determine the “size and shape” of the U.S. troops that are expected to stopover, as well as what equipment would be used.
Permanent U.S. bases in the Philippines were forced to close in 1991 due to domestic pressure. But under a Visiting Forces Agreement, about 500 U.S. troops have been rotating in and out of the Southern Philippines since 2002, focusing on counterterrorism training.
The United States is shifting its foreign policy more towards Asia, expanding military alliances and diplomatic outreach. Washington has an agreement with Singapore to dock combat ships for long stretches and Australia is expected to host some 2,500 U.S. troops by 2017.
The American strategy is under particular scrutiny in the South China Sea, where the Philippines has filed dozens of diplomatic protests as well as a case with a United Nations arbitration tribunal over what it calls China’s “excessive claims” to the sea.
China said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over nearly the entire sea. The Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei also claim rights to the sea.
Philippine negotiator and Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said the increased U.S. rotations will play a crucial role in a maritime region with rich fishing grounds as well as potentially huge hydrocarbon reserves.
“There should be a focus on high-impact, high-value training exercises and activities that would focus on maritime security, maritime domain awareness and our perennial problem with disasters,” said Batino.
A few dozen members of Philippine leftist groups protested the talks outside the main entrance of the Department of Defense.
The next round of talks will be in Washington at the end of the month.