Biden Aims to Deter China With Greater U.S. Military Presence in Philippines
WASHINGTON — President Biden and his aides have tried to reassure Chinese leaders that they do not seek to contain China in the same way the Americans did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
But the announcement on Thursday that the U.S. military is expanding its presence in the Philippines leaves little doubt that the United States is positioning itself to constrain China’s armed forces and bolstering its ability to defend Taiwan.
The announcement, made in Manila by Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. defense secretary, was only the latest in a series of moves by the Biden administration to strengthen military alliances and partnerships across the Asia-Pacific region with an eye toward countering China, especially as tensions over Taiwan rise.
“This is a really big outcome,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Society and an adviser to Mr. Biden when he was vice president. “You can better mass forces and project power if you can rotate into those locations in the Philippines.”
He added that the greater military presence “sends a deterrent message to China.”
Under Mr. Biden, the United States is working to strengthen military ties with Australia, Japan and India, and it has gotten the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to speak out on potential threats from China.
Mr. Austin’s announcement signals that the United States could use its own armed forces to push back harder against the Chinese military’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where China and several Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, have territorial disputes. More important, they could aid Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army were to attack or invade the democratic, self-governing island, which China considers part of its territory.
Mr. Biden has said four times that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan in the event of conflict, but his aides insist that American policy has not changed. Since the United States ended formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, it has avoided declaring whether it would deploy military forces to defend Taiwan, a position commonly known as “strategic ambiguity.”
A congressional mandate requires every presidential administration to give weapons of a defensive nature to Taiwan, and Mr. Biden’s team is intent on accelerating that and shaping the sales packages so that Taiwan becomes a “porcupine” that China would fear attacking.
A greater U.S. military presence in the Philippines would go beyond that — it would make rapid American troop movement to the Taiwan Strait much easier. The archipelago of the Philippines lies in an arc south of Taiwan, and the bases there would be critical launch and resupply points in a war with China. The Philippines’ northernmost island of Itbayat is less than 100 miles from Taiwan.
The Military Ties Between the U.S. and the Philippines
A complex alliance. The United States and the Philippines announced a deal that would give U.S. forces access to four more military sites in the Southeast Asian country, creating the largest American military presence there in decades. Here is what to know:
A strategic partner. The Philippines, a former Spanish colony that was ruled as an American territory for decades before gaining independence in 1946, is the oldest of the United States’ five treaty allies in the Indo-Pacific region. It is also a crucial strategic partner in a region where China has been asserting its military power and building military outposts on contested islands.
Colonial legacy. The Philippines, which signed the Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States in 1951, once hosted some of America’s largest overseas military facilities. But many Filipinos saw the arrangement as a vestige of American colonialism. In 1992, the United States vacated its last base in the country, after street protests and the Philippine Senate’s decision to sunset America’s military presence.
The rise of Duterte. Agreements in 1999 and 2014 allowed the American military to rebuild its presence in the Philippines to some degree. But when President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, he expressed an intention to seek a military “separation” from the United States. He eventually backed off his threats.
Warming ties. Mr. Duterte’s successor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has sought to revive the relationship with the United States since taking office in 2022. The new military agreement, which is an extension of the deal signed in 2014, is a big step in that direction.
Significance of the deal. American officials say that getting access to the Philippines’ northernmost islands is crucial to countering China in the event of an attack on nearby Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing claims as its territory. The new agreement could also have implications in the South China Sea, which is home to some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes.
The United States is relying on Japan, which, like the Philippines, is a military treaty ally, to be the bulwark on the northern flank of Taiwan. Mr. Biden promised Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan last month that the Americans would help build up the Japanese military.
The announcement in Manila took place right before Antony J. Blinken was scheduled to fly to China in the first visit there by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018. That timing could be interpreted by Chinese leaders as a signal that the main U.S. policy priority in the region is working with allies and partners to rein in China, rather than stabilizing relations with Beijing.
“The U.S. side, out of selfish interests, holds on to the zero-sum mentality and keeps strengthening military deployment in the Asia-Pacific,” Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said at a news conference in Beijing on Thursday. “This would escalate tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region. Regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the U.S.”
The new agreement allows the United States to put military equipment and build facilities in as many as nine locations across the Philippines, which would lead to the biggest American military presence in that country in 30 years.
“This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability. It is not about permanent basing,” Mr. Austin said in Manila. “It is a big deal. It’s a really big deal, in that, you know, it provides us the opportunity, again, to interact a bit more in an effective way.”
The last American soldiers left the Philippines in the 1990s, and the country’s Constitution now bars foreign troops from being permanently based there.
In November, a Philippine general identified five possible sites for the agreement. The announcement on Thursday mentioned nine, though Mr. Austin and his aides did not publicly say where the additional four sites would be located. Randall Schriver, a former assistant secretary of defense for the Asia-Pacific region, said in an interview that he thinks the four sites are on the northern island of Luzon, in the southwest province of Palawan and part of the old U.S. military facility at Subic Bay.
Mr. Schriver added that the Pentagon’s aim is to get at least one site that each of the U.S. armed services — the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force — could use as a point for surging forces, if necessary. They would not just be air bases, and a big question is how much construction would be needed to get each one ready.
The sites would likely be incorporated as soon as possible into the U.S. military’s regional exercise schedule, and Pentagon could leave equipment behind rather than bring it back to home bases, Mr. Schriver said.
The agreement extends the Pentagon’s forward presence in the Indo-Pacific region — in addition to forces in Australia, South Korea, Japan and Guam, military officials said.
“Sites could potentially be used for a wide range of missions such as joint military training, disaster relief and humanitarian efforts, and combined exercises,” said Lt. Col. Martin J. Meiners, a Defense Department spokesman.
One of the most important activities at the bases would probably be logistics — storing fuel, ammunition, spare parts and equipment, said current and former military officials, including some who served in the Philippines.
Pentagon officials said on Thursday that the military was working out the details of how many U.S. military forces would be located at the bases at any given time, how long those rotational tours of duty would be, and what the troops would do once they were there.
By adding to the Pentagon’s vast logistics network, the agreement makes it more difficult for an enemy to target U.S. supply hubs in the region.
“Logistics wins battles and campaigns and wars,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Green Beret commander who served in the Philippines.
In the early 1990s, the United States had nearly 6,000 troops permanently based in the Philippines. Officials said under the new basing plan, that figure would be dramatically lower, with a combination of uniformed U.S. service members, American civilian contractors, and local Filipino contractors and security personnel.
“Our actual presence will be very limited and temporary,” said Joseph H. Felter, a former top Pentagon official on Southeast Asia who now directs Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.
In other parts of the world where U.S. forces are temporarily based, such as in Iraq, Syria and Somalia, military deployments of six months to one year are common, but the length of tour duties varies, officials said.
In any war, operational and supply bases would be among the first targets an enemy would try to strike. Mr. Maxwell said a key to the bases’ success will be what kind of air and missile defense systems are deployed to protect them against possible Chinese ballistic or cruise missile attacks, or warplanes dropping precision-guided bombs.
“If China is going to try to take steps with its missile arsenal to take out locations where the U.S. projects forces, it now has more targets it would have to deal with,” Mr. Stokes said. “China has a big missile arsenal and many aircraft, but this still presents it with a bigger problem.”