MANILA: The Philippines has granted the United States expanded access to its military bases, their defence chiefs said on Thursday (Feb 2), amid mounting concern over China's increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea and tensions over self-ruled Taiwan.
Washington would be given access to four more locations under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Philippines' Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said in a joint news conference.
Austin, who was in the Philippines for talks as Washington seeks to extend its security options in the country as part of efforts to deter any move by China against self-ruled Taiwan, described Manila's decision as a "big deal" as he and his counterpart reaffirmed their commitment to bolstering their countries' alliance.
"Our alliance makes both of our democracies more secure and helps uphold a free and open Indo-Pacific," said Austin, whose visit follows US Vice President Kamala Harris's trip to the Philippines in November, which included a stop at Palawan in the South China Sea.
"We discussed concrete actions to address destabilising activities in the waters surrounding the Philippines, including the West Philippine Sea, and we remain committed to strengthening our mutual capacities to resist armed attack," Austin said.
"That's just part of our efforts to modernize our alliance. And these efforts are especially important as People's Republic of China continues to advance its illegitimate claims in the West Philippine Sea," he added.
The additional locations under the EDCA bring to nine the number of military bases the United States would have access to, and Washington had announced it was allocating more than US$82 million toward infrastructure investments at the existing sites.
The EDCA allows US access to Philippine military bases for joint training, pre-positioning of equipment and the building of facilities such as runways, fuel storage and military housing, but not a permanent presence.
Austin and Galvez did not say where the new locations would be. The former Philippine military chief had said the United States had requested access to bases on the northern land mass of Luzon, the closest part of the Philippines to Taiwan, and on the island of Palawan, facing the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.
There was no immediate comment from the Chinese Embassy in Manila.
Outside the military headquarters, dozens of protesters opposed to the United States maintaining a military presence in the country chanted anti-US slogans and called for the EDCA to be scrapped.
Before meeting his counterpart, Austin met with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr at the presidential palace on Thursday, where he assured the Southeast Asian leader, "we stand ready to help you in any way we can".
Ties between the United States and the Philippines, a former colony, were soured by predecessor Rodrigo Duterte's overtures towards China, his famous anti-US rhetoric and threats to downgrade their military ties.
But Marcos has met with US President Joe Biden twice since his landslide victory in the elections last year and reiterated he cannot see a future for his country without its longtime treaty ally.
"I have always said, it seems to me, the future of the Philippines and for that matter the Asia Pacific will always have to involve the United States," Marcos told Austin.