MANILA, Philippines — The United States is seeking an expansion of its military presence in the Philippines under a 2014 defense pact, U.S. and Philippine officials said, one of the initiatives Vice President Kamala Harris launched Monday during her visit to America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia.
Harris also reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in talks with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the presidential palace in Manila.
The high-level assurance came a day after China’s coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris that Filipino navy personnel found and were towing to a Philippines-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea. China, the Philippines and four other governments are locked in increasingly tense territorial disputes in the strategic waterway.
“An armed attack on the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. Mutual Defense commitments,” Harris told Marcos Jr. “And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.”
Marcos Jr. thanked Harris. He said that given the upheavals in the region and beyond, “this partnership becomes even more important.”
On Tuesday, Harris flies to the western Philippine island province of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea, to showcase the level of concern America has for keeping the busy waterway open for commerce and navigation and to assure allies like the Philippines.
China’s increasingly aggressive actions to fortify its claims to most of the busy waterway have alarmed smaller claimant nations. The U.S. has been helping strengthen the Philippine coast guard, which said it would welcome Harris aboard one of its biggest patrol ships moored in Palawan.
Harris and her delegation also announced a range of U.S. assistance and initiatives to help the Philippines deal with climate change and looming food and energy crises, including talks on a proposed agreement that would provide the legal basis for U.S. exports of nuclear equipment and material for energy to the Philippines.
A former American colony, the Philippines used to host one of the largest U.S. Navy and Air Force bases outside the American mainland. The bases were shut down in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but American forces returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops under a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.
In 2014, the allies signed the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows larger numbers of American forces to stay in rotating batches within Philippine military camps, where they can build warehouses, living quarters, joint training facilities and store combat equipment, except nuclear arms. The Philippines could take over those buildings and facilities when the Americans leave.
After the agreement was signed, the Americans launched construction projects in five Philippine camps and areas, including in the country’s south, where U.S counterterrorism forces have helped train and provide intelligence to their Filipino counterparts for years. Many of the projects were delayed by legal issues and other problems, Philippine defense officials said.
Large numbers of American forces stayed in local camps in southern Zamboanga city and outlying provinces at the height of threats posed by Muslim militants, which have eased in recent years. More than 100 U.S. military personnel currently remain in Zamboanga and three southern provinces, a Philippine military official told The Associated Press.
A U.S. official told reporters that new areas have been identified to be developed to expand joint security cooperation and training. He did not provide details, including the type of military facilities, locations and the number of American military personnel to be deployed in those sites, saying the projects would have to be finalized with the Philippines.
Philippine military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro said last week that the U.S. wanted to construct military facilities in five more areas in the northern Philippines.
Two of the new areas proposed by the Americans were in northern Cagayan province, Bacarro said. Cagayan is across a strait from Taiwan and could serve as a crucial outpost in case tensions worsen between China and the self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own.
The other proposed sites included the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, he said. They both face the South China Sea and would allow an American military presence nearer the disputed waters to support Filipino forces.
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign troops in the country except when they are covered by treaties or agreements. Foreign forces are also banned from engaging in local combat.