Preparing for War in the South China SeaPreparing for War in the South China SeaAhead of massive war games involving US and Filipino troops, the Defense Department announced that it will gain access to four new military sites in the Philippines.
By Sarah Lazare
Today 5:00 am
April 7, 2023
“Imagine you have a visitor who comes into your house,” Corazon Valdez Fabros said over Zoom from Quezon City in the Philippines. “You welcome this visitor. But this is a visitor who has all the guns, all the materials, that basically you cannot object to because they are fully loaded. And you cannot even tell this visitor to get out of your house when you want them to get out.”
“That is the US,” she said.
Valdez Fabros has been organizing against the US military presence in the Philippines since the 1970s, when the US-backed dictator President Ferdinand Marcos was in power. Now, at the age of 73, she is ramping up her efforts again, this time under the presidency of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the former dictator’s son.
On February 1, President Joe Biden’s Department of Defense announced that it had struck a deal with the Marcos administration to establish a foothold at four new “agreed locations” in the country. Then, on April 3, the DOD revealed that three of those sites are in the north, near Taiwan, a source of rising tensions between the United States and China. The new sites bring the number of known US military locations to nine—the largest presence in the country since the Philippine government kicked out the US military three decades ago.
The announcement comes just ahead of massive joint war games; an annual exercise called Balikatan, or Shoulder-to-Shoulder, is slated to begin on April 11. It will be the largest of its kind, with 17,600 troops expected to participate, 12,000 from the United States. (About 100 troops from Australia, and observers from Japan are also expected to attend.) Balikatan 2023 spokesman Col. Michael Logico told news outlets that the event will include the first live-fire water exercises between US and Filipino troops. In one exercise, participants will even sink a naval vessel.
For Philippine social movement leaders who oppose the US military presence, the developments are deeply concerning. The Philippines, the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific, is just to the south of Taiwan and touches the South China Sea, parts of which are also referred to as the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines. The US has seized on—and escalated—territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and some of its neighbors to justify an expanded regional role and presence, part of a bipartisan push for an increasingly confrontational stance toward China. But US lawmakers rarely discuss how a military buildup in the Indo-Pacific region affects countries like the Philippines, where the US military has already left a trail of harm, from sexual assault to child abandonment. Tobita Chow, the founding director of Justice Is Global, a group that advocates for military de-escalation, said that people in the Philippines “do not even exist to 99.9 percent of the US foreign policy world.”
But if the well-being of its people is being disregarded, its strategic location is not. In addition to the new sites, the United States is doubling down on existing ones. The Department of Defense said on April 3 that it “intends to expand funding” of infrastructure investments at five preexisting military locations, on top of the $82 million already announced on February 1. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines, implemented in 2014, says that the US can store weapons (except for nuclear arms) and build and operate facilities at “agreed locations” provided by the Philippine military, effectively placing US sites within Philippine military camps or bases. Washington is getting a sweetheart financial deal: Under the agreement, the US does not have to pay “rental or similar costs.”
Roland Simbulan, a professor of developmental studies and public management at the University of the Philippines and author of The Bases of Our Insecurity, a study of US military bases in the Philippines, cautions that the publicly known US locations may not tell the whole story. “In our long history of our relationship with the US, especially the military, they have used a lot of secret facilities that are not publicized,” he said over Zoom from Manila.
The Philippine Constitution states that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate.” To get around this, US officials like Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III have avoided using the word “base” to describe known sites.
But David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University and author of three books about US military bases, including The United States of War, underscores, “The US military has frequently used a kind of linguistic subterfuge to disguise the presence of US bases and US forces around the world, often with the help of local governments that also have an interest in disguising or downplaying the US presence.”
Likewise, the United States claims that its troops are temporarily rotating through the country. But Vine said this framing obscures the fact that the United States is maintaining a consistent presence. “On a de facto basis, the US has had many hundreds of troops, and at times thousands of troops, in the Philippines since 2002,” he said.
The Pentagon reports that as of December 2022, there were 211 active duty US service members and 13 civilians employed by the Department of Defense stationed in the country. This number, however, is incomplete; not only is it old, but it does not include Army service members. (When asked for an accurate figure, the public affairs office of the Department of Defense referred The Nation and Workday Magazine to the December report. The public affairs office of the US Army suggested contacting the public affairs office of the US Army Pacific, which did not respond.) With the upcoming Balikatan military exercises, the number of US troops is about to increase dramatically, as is the presence of US military hardware.
This US expansion in the Philippines is part of a larger picture. The United States is pursuing a military buildup in an arc around China: There are at least 313 US military installations in East Asia, according to a list provided by the Pentagon and cited by the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition. (The US has roughly 750 military bases around the world.)
China has one base in Djibouti and several in the South China Sea, bringing the country’s total foreign military bases to around eight, according to Vine’s count. (China claims its sovereignty extends to where its South China Sea bases are located, but The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration disagrees with this claim, which has been a point of friction with the Philippines and other nearby countries.) And China’s coast guard has, at times, harassed and displaced Filipino fishers. While both China and the United States conduct military exercises and other maneuvers aimed at projecting power in or near the South China Sea, Vine says the US military has pursued a far greater buildup in the region—near China’s borders. » …