The U.S. military will increase its presence near the South China Sea by placing troops across five bases in the Philippines under an agreement finalized by both the countries, Air Force Times reported Monday. If approved by the Filipino government, the deployment — which will be on rotational basis — will leave the American military assets and personnel on the ground in the Southeast Asian country for longer time, the report added.
The U.S. will be forming “permanent logistics facilities to support rotational deployments,” Air Force Times reported citing an American defense official. The Pentagon is reportedly expected to make sizeable investments on construction projects to boost capacity at the five bases. The agreement was finalized Friday, according to the report. The U.S. Marine Corps units are also reportedly likely to be included in the deployment at the Philippine bases.
The deployment will be at Antonio Bautista Air Base near Puerto Princesa City, the capital of the island province of Palawan in western Philippines, which is strategically located near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, according to Air Force Times. The military will also reportedly increase its presence at Basa Air Base, about 70 miles northwest of Manila; Fort Magsaysay, the largest military reservation in the country; Lumbia Air Base on the southern island of Mindanao and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu in central Philippines.
The South China Sea region has been long disputed, with Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam laying claim to various areas. Beijing has been expanding its presence in the contested area and has built three runways on the Spratly archipelago. However, the world’s second largest economy has repeatedly defended its actions, saying it does not have any intentions of starting a conflict and that its aircraft facilities will maintain safety in the region.
The Philippines, which previously opposed the U.S. military presence in the country, recently sought support from the United States after China stepped up its activities in the region.
“I suspect that it will ramp up slowly,” Jan van Tol, a retired U.S. Navy captain and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, told Air Force Times. “A suddenly much larger U.S. presence, even if just a rotational presence, that can be seen ... in Beijing, that this is a ratcheting up of a U.S.-Chinese competition in the South China Sea.”
Van Tol also noted the Antonio Bautista Air Base’s strategic location near the Spratlys. “That puts them much closer to the scene where the Chinese are using what we consider to be illegitimate activities,” he reportedly said.