The defense strategy outlined by President Obama in January calling for an increased presence in the Asia/Pacific region is coming together. News today indicates that the U.S. is seeking further military presence in the Philippines.
A Reuters report states that the U.S. will use the Philippines to refuel its warships and planes in an expansion of its presence there.
It also coincides with diplomatic and military friction in the South China Sea and its oil-rich Spratly Islands, which are subject to disputed claims by China, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
Last month, senior Philippine defense and foreign affairs officials met their U.S. counterparts in Washington to discuss ways to increase the number and frequency of joint exercises, training, ship and aircraft visits and other activities.
"It's access, not bases," a foreign affairs department official familiar with the strategic dialogue told Reuters.
"Our talks focus on strengthening cooperation on military and non-military activities, such as disaster response and humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation. There were no discussions about new U.S. bases," he said.
These activities would allow the U.S. military more access in the Philippines, stretching its presence beyond local military facilities and training grounds into central Cebu province or to Batanes island near the northern borders with Taiwan.
U.S. ships and aircraft are seeking access for re-supply, re-fueling and repairs, not just for goodwill visits, exercises and training activities, the diplomat said.
These moves are a follow-up to the defense strategy that stated:
U.S. economic and security interests are inextricably linked to developments in the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean region and South Asia, creating a mix of evolving challenges and opportunities. Accordingly, while the U.S. military will continue to contribute to security globally, we will of necessity rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific region.
Reuters adds that:
Apart from training and exercises, the two countries discussed U.S. military assistance, including equipment and data to enhance "domain awareness" in the South China Sea. [...]
Last month, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters Manila is also considering a proposal from the United States Pacific Command to deploy P3C-Orion spy planes in the country to help monitor movements and activities in the South China Sea.
The disputed ownership of oil-rich reefs and islands in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade sails annually, is one of the biggest security threats in Asia. Beijing says it has historical sovereignty over the South China Sea, superseding claims of other countries.
Tension over the region and the U.S. plans to expand its military operations in the Asia-Pacific, long an issue with China, could well come up in talks when China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jingping visits Washington next week.