MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine government on Monday identified four new local military areas where rotational batches of American forces with their weapons will be allowed to stay indefinitely despite strong objections from China.
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has approved an expanded U.S. military presence in the country by allowing American forces to station in the four additional Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the longtime treaty allies. He said the move would boost his country’s coastal defense.
The new sites identified by Marcos’ office include a Philippine navy base in Santa Ana town and an international airport in Lal-lo town, both in northern Cagayan province. Those two locations have infuriated Chinese officials because they would provide U.S. forces with a staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own.
The two other military areas are in northern Isabela province and on Balabac island in the western province of Palawan.
Palawan faces the South China Sea, a key passage for global trade that Beijing claims virtually in its entirety and where it has taken increasingly aggressive actions that have threatened smaller claimant states, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. China’s sweeping territorial claims and its maritime activity have also alarmed the United States and other Western governments.
A United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal ruled in 2016 that China’s historical claim had no legal basis under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas. Beijing dismissed the ruling, which Washington and other Western governments recognize, and continues to defy it.
In a closed-door meeting in Manila with their Philippine counterparts last month, a Chinese Foreign Ministry delegation expressed its strong opposition to an expanded U.S. military presence in the Philippines, Philippine officials said.
The Chinese Embassy separately warned in a recent statement that the Philippine government’s security cooperation with Washington “will drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and damage its economic development at the end of the day.”
The long-seething territorial conflicts have persisted as a major irritant in Philippine-China relations early in Marcos’ six-year term. His administration has filed at least 77 of more than 200 diplomatic protests against China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters since Marcos took office last year.