MANILA, Philippines – US forces will gain access to more military bases in the Philippines than the 5 already announced, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wednesday, April 13, as he began a visit to the longstanding Asian ally.
Manila announced this year it would allow US forces to use 5 of its installations, including the Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, the closest to the disputed Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratlys) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
The deal aims to strengthen the Philippines' defensive capabilities amid a tense maritime dispute with China, while helping the Pentagon pivot more of its forces toward Asia.
"They will be more, these are just the 5 initial sites for rotational presence" of US troops, Carter told reporters on his flight to the Philippine capital from India.
"The agreement provides for more sites in the future," he said.
Short-term rotations of US forces and equipment through these 5 facilities is "our favorite way of having a presence, for US forces to operate in and out of the Philippines, in support of our allies, of our broader networks of friends and allies in the region."
Carter is in Manila to attend a ceremony Friday, April 15, to mark the end of Balikatan, an annual large-scale joint military exercise between the two allies.
He is scheduled to call on President Benigno Aquino III on Thursday, April 14.
Carter said he did not know at this time how many more Philippine military bases would be opened to US use.
"This is an evolving thing. We agreed to do these 5 with an understanding that they could be more and would be more, as we see what else and where else is significant," he added.
The Antonio Bautista Air Base is just 300 kilometers (186 miles) east of Mischief Reef, an outcrop occupied by China in the 1990s despite angry protests by the Philippines.
China claims virtually all the strategic and resources-rich South China Sea despite conflicting partial claims by Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and the Philippines.
Beijing has in recent months been asserting its claim by occupying more reefs and outcrops in these waters, and building artificial islands including airstrips on some of them.
The Philippines has warned the Chinese activity could be a prelude to Beijing declaring an air defense zone in the area.
Washington does not take sides in the territorial disputes, but has warned against attempts to disrupt freedom of navigation in international waters.
Two weeks ago, Beijing's defense ministry warned Washington to "be careful" in the South China Sea. It also said that "to strengthen military alliances is a reflection of a Cold War mentality."
Last Monday, foreign ministers from the Group of Seven (G7) countries again called for an end to provocative actions in the disputed waters.