Austin to tackle larger US military presence in Philippines

Michael Punongbayan - The Philippine Star
Austin to tackle larger US military presence in Philippines
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with the South Korean Defence Minister after their meeting at the Defence Ministry in Seoul on January 31, 2023.

MANILA, Philippines — United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III is in the country for talks about deploying US forces and weapons in more Philippine military camps to ramp up deterrence against China’s increasingly aggressive actions toward Taiwan and in the disputed South China Sea.

Austin flew to Manila Tuesday night from South Korea, where he had said that the US would increase its deployment of advanced weapons such as fighter jets and bombers to the Korean Peninsula to bolster joint training with South Korean forces in response to North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.

In the Philippines, Washington’s oldest treaty ally in Asia and a key front in the US battle against terrorism, Austin visited Zamboanga City yesterday as the most senior American defense official to set foot in Mindanao since US troops were deployed to assist the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in its war against terrorism in 2002.

Aboard a US plane with tail number 1003 that landed at the Edwin Andrews Air Base at 11:30 a.m., Austin’s party motored to the regional Western Mindanao Command (Wesmincom) under tight security and was welcomed by Gen. Andres Centino, AFP chief of staff.

Lt. Gen. Roy Galido, Wesmincom chief, confirmed that Austin met with Filipino generals and a small contingent of US counterterrorism forces based in a local military camp.

The more than 100 US military personnel mentioned have provided intelligence and combat advice for years to Filipino troops battling a decades-long Muslim insurgency, which has considerably eased but remains a key threat in the South.

Austin’s visit to the Westmincom was his first engagement with the AFP since he arrived, opening an opportunity for him to personally find out the security situation in Mindanao, where local forces are still battling remnants of terror groups.

Austin also held a closed-door meeting with Centino, Galido and Vice Admiral Toribio Adaci Jr., Philippine Navy chief and long-time Naval Forces Western Mindanao commander.

No official statements were released about Austin’s discussion with the AFP officials, said Lt. Col. Abdurasad Sirajan, Westmincom spokesman.

More recently, US forces have intensified and broadened joint training, focusing on combat readiness and disaster response with Filipino troops in the Southeast Asian nation’s western coast, which faces the South China Sea, and in its northern Luzon region across the sea from the Taiwan Strait.

American forces have been granted access to five Philippine military camps, where they could rotate indefinitely under a 2014 defense pact called the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

In October, the US sought access for a larger number of its forces and weapons in an additional five military camps, mostly in the north. That request would be high on the agenda in Austin’s meetings.

Defense ties

“The visit of Secretary Austin definitely, obviously will have to do with many of the ongoing discussions on the EDCA sites,” Philippine Ambassador to Washington Jose Romualdez said at a news briefing.

Today, Austin is scheduled to hold talks with Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr. and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, Romualdez said.

Austin and Galvez are expected to have a meeting in the morning and a short press briefing in the afternoon at the DND building in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

Expected to be discussed are matters involving US-Philippine military relations and exercises, including the EDCA.

Austin will separately call on President Marcos, who has taken steps to boost relations with Washington since June.

The US defense chief is the latest American senior official to visit the Philippines after Vice President Kamala Harris in November in a sign of warming ties after a strained period under Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Austin last visited the Philippines in August 2021 and met with then defense chief Delfin Lorenzana.

At the time, he reassured that America’s “ironclad” commitment to its Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines “extends to the South China Sea.”

Recently, Romualdez said that the Philippines needs to cooperate with Washington to deter any escalation of tensions between China and self-ruled Taiwan, not only because of the treaty alliance but to help prevent a major conflict.

“We’re in a Catch-22 situation. If China makes a move on Taiwan militarily, we’ll be affected Ω– and all ASEAN region, but mostly us, Japan and South Korea,” Romualdez told The Associated Press, referring to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the 10-member regional bloc that includes the Philippines. – Roel Pareño, Pia Lee-Brago



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