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Defense & National Security — US ups military presence amid threats from China
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, talks beside his Philippine counterpart, Carlito Galvez Jr. at a joint press conference in Camp Aguinaldo military headquarters in metro Manila, Philippines on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. The United States and the Philippines announced on Thursday an agreement to expand American military presence in the Southeast Asian country, where U.S. forces would be granted access to four more Philippine military camps, effectively giving them new ground to ramp up deterrence against China’s increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea. (AP Photo/Joeal Calupitan,Pool)
The U.S. announced a major expansion in the Philippines, with four new military bases expected in the Indo-Pacific nation.
Tonight, we’re also going to break down the release of a high-profile Guantanamo Bay detainee and Ukraine’s warning that Russia is preparing some 500,000 troops for a fresh offensive.
Plus, details on why the Pentagon is worried about a balloon in the sky.
This is Defense & National Security, your guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Brad Dress.
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US announces military expansion in Philippines
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was a “big deal” for the U.S. to open up four new military bases in the Philippines, as announced on Wednesday.
At a news conference, Austin also said it was a sign of the ironclad partnership with the Philippines.
“The United States and the Philippines are more than just allies,” Austin said. “We’re family.”
Countering China: The U.S. is increasingly worried of a Chinese invasion or blockade of Taiwan, and gaining new ground in the Philippines gives American troops a more strategic foothold in the region.
Jeffrey Hornung, a senior political scientist with Rand Corporation who specializes in U.S. foreign and defense policies in the Indo-Pacific region, said the expansion sends a strong signal to China.
The bases will also be important if any are placed in the northern part of the Philippines, which lie just across a sea border from Taiwan, Hornung said.
“The U.S. realizes it’s the away team, and China’s the home team, and that for any conflict regarding Taiwan, it’s going to be extremely difficult to engage in that conflict,” Hornung said. “They’re trying to make up for those inadequacies.”
Territorial disputes: The announcement this week brings the total number of military bases in the Philippines to nine.
The five existing bases in the Philippines will also see new investments, while there is a plan to restart joint maritime drills in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has an unmodernized military force and will also benefit from a larger U.S. presence as it feuds with China over territorial waters in the South China Sea.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said the Indo-Pacific has “become a terribly complicated situation.”
“It is something we can only navigate with the help of our partners and our allies,” the Philippine president said, according to a release from the Pentagon.
Read the full story here.
Guantanamo detainee released after confinement
The Pentagon has announced the release of a high-profile prisoner, Majid Khan, from the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison facility to the Central American nation of Belize.
The Biden administration is committed to closing down Guantanamo Bay, known for its torture and detention of international prisoners.
A second chance: Khan pleaded guilty to terrorism, conspiracy and murder charges in 2012 and was sentenced in 2021 to a 10-year prison sentence, with credit earned for time he has already served.
His Thursday release comes months after he first completed his sentence, in March 2022. The U.S. was accused of stalling on his case until the Pentagon notified Congress of his release in December.
In a statement, Khan apologized for his actions and said he was “given a second chance in life.”
Years of imprisonment: Khan is a Pakistani citizen who spent much of his life in Maryland after his family was granted asylum in 1996.
Khan admitted to U.S. authorities of having worked as a courier for al-Qaeda. He was first detained by the CIA in 2003 and transferred to Guantanamo Bay in 2006.
During his sentencing hearing, Khan shed light on the infamous tortures he endured at Guantanamo Bay.
Katya Jestin, an attorney who has represented Khan since 2009, said his release was a “historic victory for human rights and the rule of law, but one that took far too long to reach.”
“Guantanamo is a national shame and we hope that today is another step forward towards its ultimate closure,” Jestin said in a statement.
Read more here.
Ukraine braces for offensive on invasion anniversary
Ukrainian officials are raising the alarm, saying Moscow is amassing hundreds of thousands of troops on the border for a massive offensive ahead of the Feb. 24 anniversary of the invasion.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia is “concentrating its forces.”
“We all know that. It is preparing to try to take revenge, not only against Ukraine, but against a free Europe and the free world,” Zelensky said at a press conference.
Turning the tide of war: Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a draft of some 300,000 reservists last year.
But Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told French media that Moscow is amassing around 500,000 troops, warning of a much larger attack.
Analysts have long warned of a coming Russian offensive as Putin looks to make up for the losses inflicted by Ukrainian forces last year.
Ukraine pushed Russian troops out of the west early in the war and later retook the city of Kherson and the region of Kharkiv in two major counter-offensives.
Some experts predict Russia will try to seize the eastern Donbas, made up of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which is contested by both armies.
Ukrainian resistance: Ukraine is aware of the incoming Russian assault and has been pushing for more advanced weapons from western allies.
Last week, Ukraine secured modern battle tanks from the U.S. and Germany, along with armored carriers and other heavy vehicles last month.
Kyiv is also seeking to launch another offensive of its own, likely in the spring.
Read that story here.
SUSPECTED CHINESE SPY BALLOON HOVERING OVER US
The Pentagon said it has been monitoring a suspected Chinese spy balloon for days, but says it does not pose a military or physical threat to anyone.
According to a senior Pentagon official, the balloon is hovering in high altitude in the northern U.S. region and was spotted in Montana.
Not new: We don’t know much about the spycraft at the moment, but a Pentagon official said they have seen this before.
They are also very confident it’s from China, as they have seen similar spy equipment from the nation before.
The U.S. decided not to shoot the balloon down because such action could have endangered citizens.
Next steps: For now, U.S. authorities will continue to monitor the balloon.