U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Philippine Defense Minister Carlito Galvez Jr. announced plans Thursday to designate four new locations for bases in strategic areas of the Philippines. Photo by Joeal Calupitan/EPA-EFE
Feb. 2 (UPI) -- The U.S. military is stepping up plans to return to the Philippines 30 years after pulling out as part of a pact that will provide the United States with a presence at the southern end of the strategically important South China Sea.
In a joint announcement early Thursday, the Pentagon said the two countries would accelerate previously agreed plans to designate four new locations for bases in strategic areas of the Philippines and the substantial completion of five projects already underway, as part of a defense cooperation treaty signed in 2014.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin asserted that United States was not "seeking permanent basing" in the Philippines but said the announcement was still "a really big deal," during a press conference alongside Philippine Defense Minister Carlito Galvez Jr. in Manila on Thursday.
"This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability," Austin said.
Lloyd and Galvez declined to immediately share details on the locations of the sites.
The southeast Asian archipelago is one of the longest-standing allies of the United States in the region and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement is an extension of the special relationship between the two countries.
''The EDCA is a key pillar of the U.S.-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training, exercises and interoperability between our forces. Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities,'' the Department of Defense said in a news release.
The addition of the new locations would allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and for the two sides to respond to other shared challenges, the statement added.
''The United States has allocated over $82 million toward infrastructure investments at the existing five sites under the EDCA and is proud that these investments are supporting economic growth and job creation in local Philippine communities.
''The Philippine-U.S. Alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad. We look forward to the opportunities these new sites will create to expand our cooperation together.''
The joint action comes as the United States' relationship with China, which has been ratcheting up its rhetoric on reunification with Taiwan and expanding its military presence in the South China Sea, has been growing increasingly tense.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning during a press conference Thursday accused the United States of stoking tensions in the region.
"Out of self-interest, the United States continues to strengthen its military deployment in the region with a zero-sum mentality, which is exacerbating tension in the region and endangering regional peace and stability," she said. "Countries in the region should remain vigilant against this and avoid being coerced and used by the United States."
Thursday's announcement follows several recent initiatives in the region, including a high-level U.S.-Japan defense summit in Washington earlier this month to reinforce the two countries' determination to keep the Indo-Pacific "free and open."
"We've decided that the 12th Artillery Regiment would remain in Japan and be reorganized into the 12th Marine Littoral Regiment by 2025," Austin said afterward.
"We will equip this new formation with advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, as well as anti-ship and transportation capabilities that are relevant to the current and future threat environments."
U.S. forces maintained a large military presence in the Philippines, with both naval and air bases, from the end of World War II until 1992 after the Philippine Senate narrowly voted not to renew an agreement signed in 1947 under which the United States leased the bases from the Philippines.