The United States is increasing its military presence in the Philippines, both countries announced on Thursday, adding American access to four more bases and asserting the Southeast Asian nation’s role as a key strategic partner for Washington in the event of a conflict with China over Taiwan.
The agreement was announced as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III was in the Philippines for a trip that began on Tuesday. The deal would allow Washington to position military equipment and rotate its troops through nine military bases controlled by the Philippines. It would mark the first time in 30 years that the United States had such a large military presence in the country.
Mr. Austin’s visit comes amid growing fears in the region over a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, the island democracy that China claims as its territory. Among the five treaty allies that the United States has in Asia, the Philippines is among the most geographically close to Taiwan, with its northernmost island of Itbayat just 93 miles away. American officials say that getting access to the Philippines’ northernmost islands is crucial to countering China in the event it attacks Taiwan.
The Philippines is the United States’ oldest treaty ally in Asia. Washington is shoring up its presence in the country after relations deteriorated during former President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term, which ended last year.
During Mr. Duterte’s term, he frequently criticized Washington and complained that the United States, the country’s former colonial ruler, had created defense treaty agreements that weighed heavily in favor of the Americans. He said that American troops took their modern weapons with them after the military exercises.
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U.S. officials were concerned when Mr. Duterte threatened to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement, a long-held defense pact that allows for large-scale joint military exercises between the two allies. He also threatened to disregard the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, the deal that allows the United States to position military equipment and troops in the Philippines.
Since he took office last June, President Ferdinand E. Marcos has sought to revive his country’s relationship with the United States, surprising many foreign policy experts. On the campaign trail, Mr. Marcos had indicated that he would try to forge closer ties with China, a hallmark of Mr. Duterte’s term.
Mr. Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, has since said he “cannot see the Philippines in the future without having the United States as a partner.”
Under the plan, at least 16,000 Filipino and American troops will train side by side in the northern province of Ilocos Norte, the stronghold of the Marcos family, later this year.
Three decades ago, the U.S. presence in the Philippines was a sore point among many Filipinos. The military bases maintained by the Americans for nearly a century were seen to be a vestige of American colonialism. In 1992, the United States had to shut down its last American base in the Philippines after street protests and a decision by the Philippine Senate.
But as China began its military incursions in the South China Sea, public opinion on America’s presence in the Philippines shifted. The Philippines now hopes to get American support to fend off Beijing’s continued military buildup in the South China Sea. Manila and Beijing have been locked in a long-running disagreement over the disputed waters that both sides claim as their own.
Among some quarters, the planned increase of the American military presence in the Philippines remains contentious.
In a statement, Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the nationalist activist political group Bayan, said Filipinos “must not allow our country to be used as staging ground for any U.S. military intervention in the region.”
“Allowing U.S. use of our facilities will drag us into this conflict, which is not aligned with our national interests,” Mr. Reyes said. As part of the deal announced on Thursday, the Americans have also agreed to increase its humanitarian assistance in the Philippines after any future natural disasters.
Jason Gutierrez contributed reporting from Manila.