MANILA, Philippines (AP) – President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday defended its decision to allow a larger U.S. military presence in the country as essential to territorial defense despite China’s staunch opposition and warned it would “pull the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife.”
The Marcos administration announced in early February that rotating parties would allow U.S. troops to remain indefinitely in four more Philippine military camps, in addition to five local bases previously designated under a 2014 defense pact from the treaty’s longtime allies.
Marcos said the four new locations will be announced soon and will include areas in the northern Philippines. That location has infuriated Chinese officials because it would provide US troops with a staging post close to southern China and Taiwan.
The Biden administration has strengthened an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China, including in future confrontations over Taiwan. America’s moves align with Philippine efforts to bolster its territorial defenses amid a long-running dispute, primarily with China in the South China Sea.
Aside from the northern and southern Philippines, Marcos told a news conference that under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, US troops are also allowed to remain in the western province of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea. He emphasized that the moves were intended to strengthen the country’s coastal defenses and, in response to a question, added that opposition to the US military presence had been overcome by some local Filipino officials.
“We explained to them why it was important that we have that and why it will be really good for their province,” Marcos said, adding that most of those who objected had come “to the idea of an EDCA site in their province.”
Governor Manuel Mamba of the northern province of Cagayan, where U.S. troops may be allowed to stay with their weapons in up to two Philippine military areas, said Marcos has the prerogative to make the decision. But he added that he was opposed to the Americans establishing their base in Cagayan, which straddles a maritime border from southern China and Taiwan, because that could turn his province into a prime target for the Chinese military if an armed conflict breaks out involving the US military. over Taiwan.
“It’s the president’s decision, not mine,” Mamba told The Associated Press. “But I maintain my position against all foreign troops stationed in my province. Still, I’m against EDCA sites in my county.”
Marcos spoke to reporters after giving a speech at an army anniversary ceremony, where he asked troops to prepare for potential external threats following a half-century battle against communist rebels that he said is “coming to an end” .
“The military must always be fully prepared and capable of any contingency, especially given that you are the nation’s last line of defense against any external security threat,” he said.
US and Philippine officials have said the US-funded construction of barracks, warehouses and other structures to be used by US troops would provide much-needed local jobs and boost the economy. The US presence would help the Philippines respond to natural disasters, increase combat readiness and help deter Chinese aggression in Asia.
However, China has repeatedly accused Washington of taking steps to restrain it militarily and drive a wedge between Beijing and its Asian neighbors such as the Philippines.
“Creating economic opportunities and jobs through military cooperation is tantamount to quenching thirst with poison and cutting open flesh to heal wounds,” the Chinese embassy in Manila said in a recent statement. “Such cooperation will seriously jeopardize regional peace and stability and drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and ultimately harm economic development.”
U.S. forces have intensified and expanded joint training, focusing on combat readiness and disaster relief with Philippine troops on the country’s western coast, which faces the disputed South China Sea, and in the northern Luzon region across the sea of the Taiwan Strait.
Next month, the Allies will hold their biggest combat exercise, called Balikatan – Tagalog for shoulder to shoulder – which also includes live ammunition. A planned maneuver involves U.S. and Philippine forces firing missiles to sink a counterfeit enemy ship in waters facing the South China Sea, the Philippine military said.
If the ship-sinking exercise goes ahead as planned, it would likely provoke an angry response from China, which almost entirely claims the strategic waterway and has repeatedly warned Washington to stop interfering in what Beijing says is a purely Asian dispute .
Associated Press journalists Joeal Calupitan and Aaron Favila contributed to this report.