China currently stands as the lone power-head in the disputed region of the South China Sea. China, along with the surrounding weaker countries (including the Philippines) all lay claim to a set of islands, coral reefs, and lagoons sprawled in waters rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.
However, a promising new military agreement by the United States and the Philippines could dramatically shift this status-quo.
After a 25 year period between the two countries, the U.S. and the Philippines will solidify a new increasingly complex military relationship this week.
“The Philippines has been a strategic partner with the United States since World War II, and it is one of the oldest American allies in Asia. For decades, it hosted major American military bases at Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. But in a wave of nationalist sentiment, Philippine lawmakers ejected the American military from the country in 1991. Years of strained military relations followed, but the two countries have come together in recent years over concerns about China’s claims in the South China Sea, which encompass more than 80 percent of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines in waters that Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea,” the New York Times reports.
The Philippines’ current defense system, which is composed of two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters nearing 50 years old, and two fighter jets will be getting a huge upgrade with this new deal. The feeble cutters and jets the nation has now allows for China to remain controlling the territory, construct artificial islands, and chase off Filipino fishermen with ease.
The new military agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines, which the Philippine Supreme Court in January, will grant the U.S. permission to build and operate facilities at five Philippine military bases for 10 years. It will also spread more U.S. troops, planes, and ships across the island nation.
Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto Princesa on the western island of Palawan will be used by the Americans to “protect their interests further afield,” and the will be used by the Philippines to “monitor its economic zone in the South China Sea,” said Philippine military spokesman Col. Restituto Padilla.
“The American side has interests beyond our exclusive economic zone, including freedom of navigation throughout the South China Sea, so they will be using it to patrol beyond our areas,” he continued.
While the Antonio Bautista base is located right on the South China Sea, the other four bases included in the deal are far from it. One of these, the Lumbia Air Base on the island of Mindanao, is in an area known to be home to several groups that the U.S. classifies as terrorists. This is due to the new agreement also contributing to the joint efforts of the U.S. and the Philippines to combat terrorist activity in the southern region of the Philippines. The other bases American troops will utilize are: the Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base, located on Mactan Island, and Fort Magsaysay, a large-scale facility located just north of Manila.
Col. Padilla told the NYTimes; “It is shortsighted for people to focus solely on the South China Sea. There is a bigger picture here. We didn’t enter into this agreement for just one reason. We are modernizing our military.”
Matt Williams, country director in the Philippines for the risk management company Pacific Strategies & Assessments, also offered insight on the topic. According to him, the Philippines still has a long way to go. He warns that the expectations regarding the new military alliance’s impact on the South China Sea multi-nation struggle should be tempered.