The United States and the Philippines have reached a 10-year agreement that would allow a larger U.S. military presence in the Southeast Asian country as it grapples with increasingly tense territorial disputes with China, White House officials said Sunday.
The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allows for U.S. troops to be deployed “on temporary and rotational basis,” according to a primer issued by the Philippine government, but not a return of U.S. military bases. It also allows U.S. forces to train and conduct exercises with Philippine forces for maritime security, disaster assistance and humanitarian aid, White House officials told reporters at a briefing.
The agreement will be signed Monday at the main military camp in the Philippine capital, Manila, before President Barack Obama arrives on the last leg of a four-country Asian tour, following earlier stops in Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
Officials accompanying Obama on a visit to Malaysia cited disaster response after last year's Typhoon Yolanda as the kind of cooperation the pact would facilitate.
While U.S. officials say the new security pact is not meant to counter Chinese assertiveness in the region, it would give American forces temporary access to selected military camps and allow them to preposition fighter jets and ships.
"We're not doing this because of China," Evan Medeiros, Obama's top Asia advisor, said when asked if the pact is meant as a deterrent to China.
Nevertheless, the defense accord helps address the U.S. and Philippines’ respective dilemmas. With its anemic military, the Philippines has struggled to bolster its territorial defense amid China's increasingly assertive behavior in the disputed South China Sea. Manila's effort has dovetailed with Washington's intention to pivot away from years of heavy military engagement in the Middle East to Asia, partly as a counterweight to China's rising clout.
"The Philippines' immediate and urgent motivation is to strengthen itself and look for a security shield with its pitiful military," Manila-based political analyst Ramon Casiple said. "The U.S. is looking for a re-entry to Asia, where its superpower status has been put in doubt."
The convergence would work to deter China's increasingly assertive stance in disputed territories, Casiple said. But it could also further antagonize Beijing, which sees such tactical alliance as a U.S. strategy to contain its rise, and encourage China to intensify its massive military buildup, he said.
The agreement would promote better coordination between U.S. and Filipino forces, boost the 120,000-strong Philippine military's capability to monitor and secure the country's territory and respond more rapidly to natural disasters and other emergencies.
"Pre-positioned materiel will allow for timely responses in the event of disasters — natural or otherwise," stated the government primer.
While the U.S. military would not be required to pay rent for local camp areas, the Philippines would own buildings and infrastructure to be built or improved by the Americans and reap economic gains from the U.S. presence, it said, adding the pact was an executive agreement that would not need to be ratified by the Philippine Senate.
The presence of foreign troops is a sensitive issue in the Philippines, a former American colony.
Left-wing activists have protested against Obama's visit and the new defense pact in small but lively demonstrations, saying that the agreement reverses democratic gains achieved when huge U.S. military bases were shut down in the early 1990s, ending nearly a century of American military presence in the Philippines.
The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close down U.S. bases at Subic and Clark, northwest of Manila. However, it ratified a pact with the U.S. allowing temporary visits by American forces in 1999, four years after China seized a reef the Philippines contests.
Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, hundreds of U.S. forces descended in the southern Philippines under that accord to hold counterterrorism exercises with Filipino troops fighting Muslim militants.
This time, the focus of the Philippines and its underfunded military has increasingly turned to external threats as territorial spats with China in the potentially oil- and gas-rich South China Sea heated up in recent years. The Philippines has turned to Washington, its longtime defense treaty ally, to help modernize its navy and air force, which are among Asia's weakest.
Chinese paramilitary ships took effective control of the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground off the northwestern Philippines, in 2012. Last year, Chinese coast guard ships surrounded another contested offshore South China Sea territory, the Second Thomas Shoal, where they have been trying to block food supplies and rotation of Filipino marines aboard a grounded Philippine navy ship in the remote coral outcrops.
The dangerous standoff has alarmed Washington, which called China's actions provocative.
China has ignored Philippine diplomatic protests and Manila's move last year to challenge Beijing's expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea before an international arbitration tribunal. It has warned the U.S. to stay out of the Asian dispute.
Al Jazeera and wire services