© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a press conference after a bilateral meeting with Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana at the Camp Aguinaldo military camp in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 30, 202
WASHINGTON/MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s visit to the Philippines this week is expected to herald expanded U.S. access to military bases in the country, a senior Philippine official said on Wednesday.
Washington wants to expand its security capabilities in the Philippines as part of efforts to deter any move by China against self-ruled Taiwan, while Manila wants to bolster defenses of its territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea.
Austin arrived in Manila on Tuesday night and will meet with his Philippine counterpart and other officials on Thursday “to build on our strong bilateral relationship, discuss a range of security initiatives and advance our shared vision of a free and open Pacific,” he said. on Twitter.
Austin visited US troops stationed at a Philippine military camp in the southern city of Zamboanga on Wednesday morning, according to Roy Galido, commander of the Western Mindanao Command.
“Our working relationship with them is very strong,” Galido told reporters, adding that U.S. troops assist in counterterrorism, humanitarian missions and disaster responses.
US officials said Washington hoped for an access agreement during Austin’s visit, which began on Tuesday, and that Washington had proposed additional sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which dates back to 2014.
“There is a push for four or five more of these EDCA sites,” said a senior Philippine official. “We will definitely have some kind of announcement. I just don’t know what the final outcome of that will be.”
The official declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Manila and Washington have a mutual defense agreement and are debating US access to four additional bases on the northern mainland of Luzon, the part of the Philippines closest to Taiwan, as well as another on the island of Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
EDCA allows US access to Philippine bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and construction of facilities such as airstrips, fuel storage and military housing, but not a permanent presence. The US military already has access to five such sites.
A Philippine official said increased US access is needed for the benefit of both countries.
“We don’t want it to be directed only for the use of the United States solely for its defense capabilities … it has to be mutually beneficial,” he said.
“And obviously, we want to make sure that no country sees … everything that we do … is directed towards any kind of conflict or anything like that,” he added.
Manila’s priorities in the agreements with Washington were to strengthen defense capabilities and interoperability with US forces and improve the ability to deal with climate change and natural disasters, the official said.
He said that after canceling a deal to buy heavy helicopters from Russia last year, Manila had reached an agreement with Washington to upgrade “several” Blackhawk helicopters that could be used for disaster relief.
“The deal with Russia was very attractive because we could get about 16 of these heavy helicopters for a certain budget,” the official said. “Now with the United States, obviously their helicopters are more expensive, so we’re looking at how we can fit into the budget that we had.”
Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia expert at the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies, said access to sites in northern Luzon would help US efforts to deter any Chinese move against Taiwan by bringing waters south of the island within range of the coast. -based missiles.
He said the US and Philippine marines are pursuing similar capabilities with land-based missiles, with Manila’s particular interest in protecting its rights in the South China Sea.
The Philippines is one of several countries at odds with China in the South China Sea and is angered by the continued presence of ships in its exclusive economic zone that it says are manned by Chinese militia. China is also Manila’s main trading partner.