Washington and Manila should discuss what the US can do with access to some military bases in the Philippines, Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo said on Monday.
The Philippines last week designated four more military bases for US access amid concerns about China’s growing power.
A day ahead of the first joint meeting of US and Philippine foreign and defense ministers in seven years, Manalo pushed for dialogue and engagement between Washington and Beijing.
He told the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington that Tuesday’s so-called 2+2 meeting between the old allies “highlights the positive trajectory of our bilateral relations, which is now taking place at all levels.”
Experts say the US sees the Philippines as a potential base for missiles, missiles and artillery systems to counter China’s amphibious invasion of Taiwan.
When asked if the Philippines would allow such systems for that purpose as part of expanded access under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), Manalo said:
“We’ve basically identified the locations. As elsewhere, discussions have to be had about the terms of reference, the type of operations … they have to be agreed … it all depends on how the talks go.”
The Pentagon didn’t say specifically what the additional bases would be used for, but they include airport expansion and training with naval assets.
EDCA allows US access to Philippine bases for joint training, forward deployment of equipment and construction of facilities such as airstrips, fuel storage and military housing, but not permanent presence.
Relations between the United States and the Philippines have warmed considerably under Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but Manila remains on a delicate path with China, the region’s economic powerhouse.
Marcos assured China on Monday that military bases accessible to the United States would not be used for offensive operations, stressing that the arrangement with Washington was designed to strengthen his country’s security.
The comments come ahead of the largest-ever joint US-Philippines military exercise, which will see live-fire exercises at sea for the first time.
The locations of the new EDCA sites are critical: three face north of Taiwan and one near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands with runways and missile systems.
China said last week that strengthening the US military presence in the Philippines would increase regional tensions.
Manalo said Manila wants a strong economic relationship with the United States and the growing demand for US capital investment in sectors such as agriculture, food security, clean energy, transportation and digital infrastructure.
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