The United States and the Philippines signed a security agreement on Monday allowing for more American troops to be stationed in the country on a rotational basis. The deal gives the Americans greater access to many of the bases they used to maintain, including the Subic Bay Naval Base, for the next ten years.
The agreement marks a turnabout for American-Filipino relations after the United States withdrew most of their troops in 1992 in the face of local protests. It also reflects the new security environment in Asia.
On the final stop of his Asia trip, President Barak Obama appeared with his Filipino counterpart, Benigno S. Aquino III, at a news conference in Manila. Obama took pains to say the deal is not intended to contain China but to “make sure that international rules and norms are protected.”
China and the Philippines are locked in a dispute over claims to uninhabited islands and territorial waters in the South China Sea. In that light, the agreement with the United States is not unexpected. China’s military buildup is causing angst in the region. Its smaller neighbors are becoming increasingly alarmed that their security interests may be threatened without the Americans engaged in Asia. As a result, the Americans are courted by countries in Asia to be a hedge against China.
The Philippines understands it needs the United States military to protect its interest as its own navy was no match for China’s in a recent dispute.
In 2012, in Scarborough Shoal, Chinese maritime patrols had begun enforcing what they said was Chinese sovereign territory. It pushed local Filipino fishermen out of the area. With tensions rising and an armed clash likely to occur, the United States stepped in and persuaded both sides to pull back.
The agreement did not hold as Chinese ships eventually retook the area and continue to hold it today.
Against China’s large navy, the Filipino coast guard is largely helpless. Filipino fishermen for generations made their living off the Scarborough Shoal and are now no longer able to ply their trade.
In that context, it is no wonder that the United States Navy is back with a more visible presence in the Philippines 22 years after being evicted from its bases.