The United States and the Philippines announced on Feb. 2, 2023, that the U.S. is expanding its military presence across more military bases in the Southeast Asian country, giving the U.S. a potential advantage in its efforts to thwart China’s possible efforts to take control of Taiwan.
The Philippines’ most northern island sits about 118 miles (190 kilometers) from Taiwan.
While Taiwan, an island off the coast of China, considers itself an independent country, China maintains that it is a breakaway province it wants to again control and has increased its threats to move to overtake it in recent months.
We are political science scholars and U.S. foreign policy experts who recently published a book about U.S. overseas military deployments. Here is what this new agreement means for the U.S. foreign policy and rising military tensions in East and Southeast Asia.
1. The agreement expands US influence
The military agreement is an expansion of a 2014 deal called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
The new pact signed this week allows the U.S. to access four additional military bases in the Philippines and maintain equipment on those bases. In addition, the agreement calls for the U.S. to spend US$82 million on infrastructure investments at the five bases currently in use.
Now, the U.S. will have access to nine base sites in the Philippines, representing its most expansive military presence in the country in 30 years.
The deal follows an October 2022 announcement that the U.S. was giving $100 million to the military in the Philippines.
2. It sends a warning to China
In recent years, China has increased its overseas military presence in the South China Sea and has begun expanding its military footprint in other regions, including countries in Africa, where it previously had none. China continues to seek new foreign locations to host its own troops.
In 2022, for example, China signed a new military deal with the Solomon Islands, leading to speculation that it could eventually establish a permanent military base there.
The U.S. also announced on Feb. 2, 2023, that it has opened an embassy in the Solomon Islands after not having one for 30 years.
While U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has said that this new deal with the Philippines is necessary for training and integrating the U.S. and Philippine troops, it also increases the United States’ ability to respond to regional threats.
Having U.S. forces on the northern island of Luzon, in particular, would increase the United States’ ability to deter Chinese threats toward Taiwan. This expansion of military access also allows the U.S. to more easily and quickly respond to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea or the West Philippine Sea.
China swiftly responded to the military agreement news. Mao Ning, a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said on Feb. 2, 2023, that the move would “escalate tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region.”
3. US and Philippines have a long military history
After the U.S. won the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Philippines became a U.S. colony until its independence in 1946.
The Philippines went on to host tens of thousands of U.S. troops throughout the Cold War. However, widespread public protests over the U.S. presence led the Philippines to demand the U.S. leave all its bases in 1992.
Despite this departure, the U.S. remained active in counterterrorism operations in the Philippines. In 1998, the two governments signed an agreement that again permitted U.S. military personnel to be in the country. In 2014, the countries brokered another agreement that gave U.S. forces access to five Philippine military bases.
The Philippines’ former President Rodrigo Duterte, who served from 2016 through 2022, threatened to end the military agreements between the U.S. and the Philippines multiple times. The agreements endured through his six-year term.
The 2022 election of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. opened the possibility of further security cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines, as the new president showed a willingness to rekindle a diplomatic relationship.
Vice President Kamala Harris said in 2022 that an attack on the Philippines would compel the U.S. to defend the country.
The United Nations, the U.S. and human rights advocacy groups, meanwhile, have all recognized that there are serious, credible concerns about how the Philippines’ government treats its own citizens.
The police have killed thousands of civilians during raids as part of the country’s war on drugs over the past several years. The Philippines has also become an increasingly dangerous place to be a journalist and to express independent political beliefs.
While this may cause concern among human rights activists, it is unlikely to influence the United States’ military decisions.
We have found in our research that the U.S. tends to soften its concerns about human rights in deployment hosts when security issues become more prominent.
Austin announced the latest military deal from Quezon City, in the Philippines’ capital region, and noted on Feb. 2, 2023, that the two countries “shared values of freedom, democracy, and human dignity.”
4. Public opinion will matter
Given the complicated history of the U.S. and the Philippines, it is important to know what Filipinos think of the U.S. military’s maintaining a formal presence there today.
We annually surveyed approximately 1,000 Filipinos from 2018 through 2020 about how they view the United States’ and China’s influence in their country.
Generally, solid majorities view U.S. influence as favorable, with some variation over the years we surveyed. Very few of our respondents had negative views.
We also asked them about China’s influence in their country. People’s responses to this question were far less positive. These responses also indicate views of China are becoming even less favorable over time.
U.S. and Chinese competition, meanwhile, for influence in the Pacific region is on the rise.
In coming years, part of this competition will center on gaining the support of host country populations when the U.S. or China tries to set up a military base. How effective the U.S. and its military are in building goodwill will in large part influence the outcome.