The US military is seeking to expand its access to bases in the Philippines with an eye toward China, according to several US defense officials, as part of an ongoing shift in force posture in the Indo-Pacific region.
An announcement could come as soon as this week with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin set to meet with the Philippines’ leadership in the coming days, including President Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr. and acting Secretary of National Defense Carlito Galvez Jr.
The increased access to military bases in the Philippines would give US armed forces a strategic footing on the southeastern edge of the South China Sea just 200 miles south of Taiwan, a move sure to anger Beijing, which claims much of the disputed waterway as its sovereign territory.
The US military presence in the Philippines falls under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014 which allows the US to rotate troops to specific bases and build facilities for both countries to use.
A senior US defense official said there have been discussions about additional sites and that it would be a “significant topic of conversation” during Austin’s visit to the Philippines.
In November, Vice President Kamala Harris visited Manila and discussed the possibility of access to more bases. During her trip, Harris visited a military base on Palawan, a narrow strip of land known more for its beaches on the Philippines’ western edge. Palawan faces the Spratly Islands, a series of small islands in the South China Sea, some of which China has militarized. Harris’ visit sent an unambiguous message to Beijing that the Philippines are moving closer to the US, reversing the trend under the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte.
“Right now, I think we’re seeing a very positive upswing in the trajectory of the relationship,” said the defense official, who said there would be more high-level meetings over the next several months.
The Philippines used to be home to two of the US military’s largest overseas installations, Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base, which were transferred to Philippine control in the 1990s. A mutual defense treaty signed in 1951 remains in force, making it the oldest bilateral treaty alliance in the region for the United States. The two countries built on the relationship with the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement and the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
Relations between the two countries were strained under Duterte, who threatened to cancel the Visiting Forces Agreement, which would have made it far more difficult for US forces to access the Philippines. Duterte relented and restored the agreement in July 2021.
Marcos Jr. has sought an improvement in the relationship with Washington, even as he walks a fine line with China, one of the Philippines’ largest trading partners.
Sitting beside Harris in November, Marcos Jr. told reporters: “I have said many times, I do not see a future for the Philippines that does not include the United States, and that has come from the very long relationship with the US.”
In addition to the potential expansion of the EDCA, the US is helping the Philippines modernize its military and has included the Philippines as a pilot country in a maritime domain awareness initiative. The two countries also recently agreed to more than 500 activities together throughout the year.
The effort to seek greater access to basing in the Philippines comes as the Pentagon carries out a major shift in force posture in the region.
Earlier this month, the US announced it would station a newly redesignated Marine unit in Okinawa, Japan, with advanced intelligence and surveillance capabilities, as well as the ability to fire anti-ship missiles. One US official described the move as one of the most significant adjustments to US military force posture in the region in years. Okinawa sits roughly 200 miles off of northern Taiwan, roughly the same distance the Philippines is from the southern end of the independent democratic island.
Last week, the Marine Corps officially opened a new base on Guam, a strategically important island east of the Philippines. Camp Blaz is the first new Marine base in 70 years and one day is expected to host 5,000 Marines.
“Forward, persistent presence is key to the regional security and stability in the Indo-Pacific. Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz is a critical part of that,” said Gen. David Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps.