Zachary S. Welch/AP - Two decades after evicting U.S. forces from their biggest base in the Pacific, the Philippines is in talks with the Obama administration about expanding the American military presence in the island nation, the latest in a series of strategic moves aimed at China.
Two decades after evicting U.S. forces from their biggest base in the Pacific, the Philippines is in talks with the Obama administration about expanding the American military presence in the island nation, the latest in a series of strategic moves aimed at China.
Although negotiations are in the early stages, officials from both governments said they are favorably inclined toward a deal. They are scheduled to intensify the discussions Thursday and Friday in Washington before higher-level meetings in March. If an arrangement is reached, it would follow other recent agreements to base thousands of U.S. Marines in northern Australia and to station Navy warships in Singapore.
Among the options under consideration are operating Navy ships from the Philippines, deploying troops on a rotational basis and staging more frequent joint exercises. Under each scenario, U.S. forces would effectively be guests at existing foreign bases.
The sudden rush by many in the Asia-Pacific region to embrace Washington is a direct reaction to China's rise as a military power and its assertiveness in staking claims to disputed territories, such as the energy-rich West Philippines Sea (South China Sea).
"We can point to other countries: Australia, Japan, Singapore," said a senior Philippine official involved in the talks, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of the deliberations. "We're not the only one doing this, and for good reason. We all want to see a peaceful and stable region. Nobody wants to have to face China or confront China."
The strategic talks with the Philippines are in addition to feelers that the Obama administration has put out to other Southeast Asian countries, including Vietnam and Thailand, about possibly bolstering military partnerships.
The United States already has about 600 Special Operations troops in the Philippines, where they advise local forces in their fight with rebels sympathetic to al-Qaeda. But the talks underway between the Philippines and Washington potentially involve a much more extensive partnership.
Officials in the Philippines — which has 7,107 islands — said their priority is to strengthen maritime defenses, especially near the South China Sea. They indicated a willingness to host American ships and surveillance aircraft.
Although the U.S. military has tens of thousands of troops stationed at long-standing bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, as well as the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, it is seeking to solidify its presence in Southeast Asia. Some of the world's busiest trade routes pass through the South China Sea and the nearby Strait of Malacca.
Instead of trying to establish giant bases reminiscent of the Cold War, however, Pentagon officials said they want to maintain a light footprint.
"We have neither desire nor any interest in creating a U.S.-only base in Southeast Asia," said Robert Scher, a deputy assistant secretary of defense who oversees security policy in the region. "In each one of these cases, the core decision and discussion is about how we work better with our friends and allies. And the key piece of that is working from their locations."