US-Philippines Base Deal aimed to Check China
Prof Rajaram Panda

The Philippines is on a diplomatic overdrive. There seems to be cracks in the ASEAN unity. The 10-member bloc is not in the same page on a host of issues. Cambodia is suspected to have succumbed to the Chinese temptation of economic doles offer that could go against the larger interests of the bloc. It is believed to be negotiating with China on offering a naval base.[1] The Myanmar crisis shows no sign of resolution. The Five-Point Consensus seems to be in limbo. The hands of Indonesia, the current ASEAN Chair, are tied though it has chosen a tough stance against the military junta. Other members are engaged with each other to find common cause that would be of mutual interests. While Vietnam’s Prime Minister Pham Minh Chinh travelled to Singapore for talks with his counterpart Lee Hsien Loong, Philippines is looking beyond the bloc and its President Marcos Jr. travelled to Tokyo to discuss regional issues with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. Amid all these developments, what stands out is the recent visit of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to Manila in the first week of February 2023 as the US has identified the Philippines as a critical element in its plans to counter China. Philippines agreed to a larger US military presence as allies seek to deter China.

New Base Deal

Both the US and the Philippines reached a deal that will see Washington substantially increase its military footprint in the Southeast Asian country. The pact signed by Austin and his Philippine counterpart Carlito Galvez Jr. in Manila will grant US forces access to four more military sites in the country in addition to a previously agreed five providing Washington with a strategic footing on the south-eastern edge of the disputed South China Sea.[2] The four new sites will enable the two countries to respond to “shared challenges”, and allow for more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines.

Under a bilateral defence cooperation pact signed in 2014, the US was offered to use five sites to train servicemen and position equipment. Called as the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the U.S. and the Philippines, it supplemented the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), a 1999 bilateral pact providing legal cover for large-scale joint military exercises between the US and Philippines, Washington’s long-time defence ally in Asia. The EDCA is characterized by both governments as an executive agreement and not a formal treaty. The EDCA allowed the US military to use areas in the Southeast Asian country to enhance mutual ability in responding to crises such as those concerning the South China Sea. It therefore did not require the consent of the Senate in either country.[3]

In the new deal of February 2023, the four new sites were not identified but it was clarified that those would be in “strategic areas” of the Philippines, presumably on the north of main island of Luzon, the closest Philippine landmass roughly 800 km (500 miles) south of Taiwan, where US forces already have access to two military facilities. The US had identified five possible sites, including two in Cagayan, one in Palawan, one in Zambales and one in Isabele. Cagayan and Isabele are in the northern Philippines. Cagayan sits across from Taiwan and Palawan is near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. So, the four agreed under the new pact could from these five.

Aimed to Check China

It thus transpired that as China continues to advance its ‘illegitimate claims’ in the South China Sea, the military base deal was a reaction to this as Washington commits to boost its military presence across Asia, with more troops and assets to be deployed to counter Beijing.[4] How does this deal impact China’s strategy of expanding its footprint and how does it respond to such moves? The US-Philippines move would affect China’s defensive posture within the first island chain that runs from Japan to the Malay Peninsula and includes Taiwan, besides offering US allies in the region more certainty when resisting Beijing.

The deal would hamper China’s defences within the first island chain, besides allowing the US to be better positioned to deal with possible conflicts in the Taiwan Strait. Why is the first island chain island important for Beijing? This is because the first island chain plays an important role for both the US and China, as Chinese forces have to pass through it to access the wider Pacific. Over the years, Beijing has built up military facilities and deployments inside the chain, triggering concerns among its neighbours and the US-Philippines deal aims to address this issue. In fact, the deal was a regional response to China’s actions in the past decade. By expanding its footprint in the past decade, China has constricted the maritime activities of rival claimants to the South China Sea, besides narrowing Taiwan’s international space. By increased US military presence in these strategic locations, the US shall be in a position to uphold maritime order and also come in Taiwan’s defence.

Philippines’ stance on the US presence has not remained consistent over the years. After the Marcos regime that was pro-US fell in 1986, resistance to US presence increased. That feeling intensified during Rodrigo Duterte regime from 2016 to 2022, which was aligned more towards Beijing. After Ferdinand Marcos Jr, or Bongbong as he is popularly called, came to power in 2022, he switched Duterte’s policy and started aligning Philippines more to the US. When the Philippines had won a case at the Hague Tribunal on its application on the South China Sea which ruled in July 2016 in its favour and against China’s claims on South China Sea as lacking legal basis, the Duterte government did not pursue the issue and started cultivating Beijing.

China was emboldened and started rejecting the claims of other Southeast Asian nations over the South China Sea in their Exclusive Economic Zones. Beijing was aware that the Hague Tribunal lacked enforcing power. It defied opposition and built up facilities such as air fields on islands in the disputed waters, triggering rebukes from Washington and raised regional tensions. On the contrary, Beijing accuses the US of provoking regional tensions with its deployment of military aircraft and vessels. Such feelings shall be more intense now after the US-Philippines deal. However, it is felt in the Southeast Asia that the US-Philippines deal would allow them greater political ability to push back against certain Chinese actions such as maritime coercion, which impacts not just the Southeast Asian nations but nations outside of the region as the issue of maritime commerce is much wider. It is hoped that the pact shall foster closer political, diplomatic and defence coordination region-wide, which the region lacked so far.

It was of course expected that the US-Philippines pact would anger Beijing even though it is assertively boosting its presence in the South China Sea and routinely dispatches warplanes to Taiwan’s air defence identification zone to intimidate the island. Beijing is now studying appropriate counter measures to deal with increasingly close military ties between the US and other Asian countries.

The real test to the US policy will be whether it can offer an alternative economic programme to countries with which it is building close security and strategic partnership such as with the Philippines as China still remains the biggest trade partner for many Asian countries. Beijing might still continue using this economic card to manage its relations, but it shall have to cross the hurdle as its internal economic challenges are increasingly eroding that advantage.

While in Tokyo, Marcos Jr. clarified that the Subic and Clark military bases are not among the new sites approved under the latest pact.[5] The US returned its naval base in the Subic Bay some 30 years ago and the Philippines built a naval base nearby in 2022. The Philippines and China have overlapping claims in parts of the South China Sea, areas believed to be rich in minerals, gas and oil deposits, and other marine resources. During Marcos Jr.’s Tokyo visit, the possibility of entering into a tripartite agreement between the US, Japan and the Philippines was also discussed. That proposal is currently under study. It is felt that in view of the “confusing” and “dangerous” situation and uncertainties relating to the South China Sea and the Indo-Pacific region as well as the Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, strengthening trilateral ties could contribute to peace and stability in the region.

There could be roadblocks to such an idea. Signing a VFA with Japan allowing Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF) to take part in joint military exercises may be of interest to the Philippines. The SDF have participated in joint drills for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief but joint military exercises could be constrained by Japan’s Constitution, particularly Article 9 that strictly limits military activities overseas. While working with friendly countries, Marcos wants to pursue an independent foreign policy and not getting sucked into cold war politics era where a nation had to choose to be aligned with either of the two blocs. As mentioned at the outset, the bloc could endorse the ASEAN concept of Asian centrality but the truism is that there are cracks that could present roadblocks.

Beijing’s Reaction

This brings us to a larger question: Is the deal allowing access to four strategic military bases around the Philippines a big threat to China or the impact on China could be limited?[6]Though some Chinese analysts feel the impact could be limited, the US military presence on a permanent basis on the four new sites has the potential to “pose a big threat to China” as these four sites have close proximity to Taiwan and the Spratly Islands. China would be deterred from any adventurous move to unify Taiwan by force for fear of immediate US retaliation. The US shall have the option now to deploy medium-range missiles and that could worry China. Any escalation would have perilous consequences. Beijing would also be careful of its moves as those could result in unintended consequences.

Manila’s Balancing Act

Since Manila ought to balance relations with both Beijing and Washington, it would be in its own interest to check if the US seriously considers doing so in the event the situation deteriorates. Considering this possibility, Manila is unlikely to allow the US to establish permanent bases as those would be the obvious targets for the PLA if a conflict breaks out. The Philippines may not rejoice if such a situation occurs. In a conflict situation, the US access to bases in places like Palawan would allow surveillance on China’s military activities near the Spratly Islands, including aircraft, warship and submarine activity. Though in the near term the US is unlikely to deploy medium-range ballistic missiles at the bases, it would reserve the right under the pact to do so if the situation warrants in the future aimed at China.

Austin clarified that though the US military access to the four sites is “a big deal”. He also said that the sites would not become “permanent bases”. That clarification need not worry Beijing too much, at least for now. But Beijing is unlikely to lower its guard given its long-term goal already defined.

Endnotes :

[1]Chen Heang, “Would Access to Cambodia’s Ream Naval Base Really Benefit China?”, The Diplomat, 7 April 2021,,
[2]Gabriel Dominguez, “Philippines agreed to larger U.S. military presence as allies seek to deter Chona”, The Japan Times, 2 February 2023,
[3]Carl Thayer, “Analyzing the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement”, The Diplomat, 2 May 2014,
[4]Kristin Huang, “US-Philippines military bases deal seen as reaction to China’s moves in South China Sea over past decade”, 5 February 2023, HTTPS://WWW.SCMP.COM/NEWS/CHINA/DIPLOMACY/ARTICLE/3209093/US-PHILIPPINES-MILITARY-BASES-DEAL-SEEN-REACTION-CHINAS-MOVES-SOUTH-CHINA-SEA-OVER-PAST-DECADE?MODULE=HARD_LINK&PGTYP
[5]Maricar Cinco, “Subic, Clark bases not included in pact with U.S.: Philippine Pres”, Kyodo News, 11 February 2023,
[6] Amber Wng, “Is the US-Philippines military base deal a big threat to China?”, 3 February 2023,

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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