US Secretary of Defense’s Visit to the Philippines: A New Age of Bilateral Cooperation? 
Ngan Do

From Jan 31 to Feb 2, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin paid his first visit to the Philippines since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office. The agreements reached during the visit showed that the defense cooperation between the two countries will be stronger after 6 years of “uncertainty” under the Duterte administration.

1. US military gain further base access in the Philippines

The two countries announced that US military can now access four new military bases in the Philippines’ strategic areas, which brought the total number of military bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) from 5 to 9. This will be the US’s largest military presence in the Philippines since 1992.

Currently, the location of these four new military bases is undisclosed. However, in November 2022, Philippine Army Llieutenant General Bartolome Vicente Bacarro said that the US is interested in military bases in Cagayan, Isabela (near Taiwan), Zambales (near the disputed Scarborough Shoal) and Palawan (near the Spratly Islands). The new military bases, if happen, may be among these locations.

Among the five US treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines is the closest to Taiwan in terms of geography. Therefore, the new military bases could help the US to enhance its monitoring and deterrent capabilities against China at the Bashi Channel, Taiwan Strait, as well as the South China Sea. Moreover, the US can have advantages in submarine deployment or refugee evacuation if a crisis happens.  

2. A more flexible US-Philippine coordination?

Possibly, the US will follow a more “flexible” deployment with the new access in the Philippines. US officials have affirmed that they only want to expand access to military bases, not establish new permanent ones. This type of deployment can be implemented at a faster pace, and possibly receive less local resistance.

Moreover, some experts claimed that the new military bases can incorporate more Navy and Marine presence (the five established existing bases under the EDCA are all Air Force and Army bases). US marines will possibly be divided into smaller units and deployed onto outermost islands. This is the same tactic that the US is using in Japan.

With the new access, the US can also be in a better position to resume joint patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea, which was halted under President Duterte’ administration.

However, several Chinese military experts such as Fu Qianshao or Song Zhongping pointed out the limitation of this tactic, claiming that the US’s threat would be more efficient if the US deploys permanent forces or mid-range missiles to the Philippines instead (Manila has yet to agree).

3. China’s response: strong but not directed at the Philippines

China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson quickly criticized the US access to military bases, claiming that this will boost regional tension and instability. China’s Embassy in the Philippines suggested that Manila should be cautious to avoid being dragged into unwanted “trouble”.

However, China’s criticism was seemingly aimed at the US - not the Philippines, possibly because Beijing wanted to maintain the concord in the bilateral relations after President Marcos' visit to China.

Comments on the Chinese outlet Global Times also share a similar tone. They claimed that the US is entrapping and dragging the Philippines to be in conflict with China, suggested that the Philippines should maintain its “independence”; as well as warned the Philippines not to help the US to deploy forces in the “first island chain” to confront China.

A Vietnamese version of the article appears on Nghien Cuu Bien Dong (South China Sea Studies) Facebook page:

Translated by Tien Dat and Hoang Do