Biden Aims to Deter China With Greater U.S. Military Presence in Philippines


U.S. officials say they are preparing to surge forces in the event of conflict with China, including over Taiwan, but do not intend to build up permanent bases.

WASHINGTON — President Biden and his aides have tried to reassure Chinese leaders that they do not seek to contain China in the same way the Americans did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

But the announcement on Thursday that the U.S. military is expanding its presence in the Philippines leaves little doubt that the United States is positioning itself to constrain China’s armed forces and bolstering its ability to defend Taiwan.

The announcement, made in Manila by Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. defense secretary, was only the latest in a series of moves by the Biden administration to strengthen military alliances and partnerships across the Asia-Pacific region with an eye toward countering China, especially as tensions over Taiwan rise.

“This is a really big outcome,” said Jacob Stokes, a senior fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Society and an adviser to Mr. Biden when he was vice president. “You can better mass forces and project power if you can rotate into those locations in the Philippines.”

He added that the greater military presence “sends a deterrent message to China.”

Under Mr. Biden, the United States is working to strengthen military ties with AustraliaJapan and India, and it has gotten the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to speak out on potential threats from China.

President Biden, standing with President Xi Jinping of China, has said that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan in the event of conflict with China, but his aides insist that the policy of strategic ambiguity has not changed. 

Mr. Austin’s announcement signals that the United States could use its own armed forces to push back harder against the Chinese military’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where China and several Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, have territorial disputes. More important, they could aid Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army were to attack or invade the democratic, self-governing island, which China considers part of its territory.

Mr. Biden has said four times that the U.S. military would defend Taiwan in the event of conflict, but his aides insist that American policy has not changed. Since the United States ended formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979, it has avoided declaring whether it would deploy military forces to defend Taiwan, a position commonly known as “strategic ambiguity.”

A congressional mandate requires every presidential administration to give weapons of a defensive nature to Taiwan, and Mr. Biden’s team is intent on accelerating that and shaping the sales packages so that Taiwan becomes a “porcupine” that China would fear attacking.

A greater U.S. military presence in the Philippines would go beyond that — it would make rapid American troop movement to the Taiwan Strait much easier. The archipelago of the Philippines lies in an arc south of Taiwan, and the bases there would be critical launch and resupply points in a war with China. The Philippines’ northernmost island of Itbayat is less than 100 miles from Taiwan.

The United States is relying on Japan, which, like the Philippines, is a military treaty ally, to be the bulwark on the northern flank of Taiwan. Mr. Biden promised Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan last month that the Americans would help build up the Japanese military.

Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser, spoke by telephone with Eduardo M. Año, his counterpart in Manila, on Jan. 17 to discuss the military cooperation agreement between the two nations and sites in the Philippines for American equipment and troops, a senior Biden administration official said. Mr. Sullivan reached out just days after Mr. Año took up his post.

That conversation built on a meeting that Mr. Biden had with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. of the Philippines on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September. Mr. Marcos took office last June, and he has said that he plans to push back against China’s claims in the South China Sea.

“It was a valuable conversation for them to take stock of the alliance and plan for how we strengthen it,” Mr. Sullivan said on Thursday night.

The announcement in Manila by Mr. Austin took place right before Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken was scheduled to fly to China in the first visit there by a U.S. State Department head since 2018. That timing could be interpreted by Chinese leaders as a signal that the main U.S. policy priority in the region is working with allies and partners to rein in China, rather than stabilizing relations with Beijing.

“The U.S. side, out of selfish interests, holds on to the zero-sum mentality and keeps strengthening military deployment in the Asia-Pacific,” Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said at a news conference in Beijing on Thursday. “This would escalate tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region. Regional countries need to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the U.S.”

The new agreement allows the United States to put military equipment and build facilities in as many as nine locations across the Philippines, which would lead to the biggest American military presence in that country in 30 years.

“This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability. It is not about permanent basing,” Mr. Austin said in Manila. “It is a big deal. It’s a really big deal, in that, you know, it provides us the opportunity, again, to interact a bit more in an effective way.”

The last American soldiers left the Philippines in the 1990s, and the country’s Constitution now bars foreign troops from being permanently based there.

A U.S. Marine helicopter participating in an annual U.S.-Philippines joint military exercise. The last American soldiers left the Philippines in the 1990s, and the country’s Constitution now bars foreign troops from being permanently based there.Credit…Aaron Favila/Associated Press

In November, a Philippine general identified five possible sites for the agreement. The announcement on Thursday mentioned nine, though Mr. Austin and his aides did not publicly say where the additional four sites would be located. Randall Schriver, a former assistant secretary of defense for the Asia-Pacific region, said in an interview that he thinks the four sites are on the northern island of Luzon, in the southwest province of Palawan and part of the old U.S. military facility at Subic Bay.

Mr. Schriver added that the Pentagon’s aim is to get at least one site that each of the U.S. armed services — the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force — could use as a point for surging forces, if necessary. They would not just be air bases, and a big question is how much construction would be needed to get each one ready.

The sites would likely be incorporated as soon as possible into the U.S. military’s regional exercise schedule, and the Pentagon could leave equipment behind rather than bring it back to home bases, Mr. Schriver said.

The agreement extends the Pentagon’s forward presence in the Indo-Pacific region — in addition to forces in Australia, South Korea, Japan and Guam, military officials said.

“Sites could potentially be used for a wide range of missions such as joint military training, disaster relief and humanitarian efforts, and combined exercises,” said Lt. Col. Martin J. Meiners, a Defense Department spokesman.

One of the most important activities at the bases would probably be logistics — storing fuel, ammunition, spare parts and equipment, said current and former military officials, including some who served in the Philippines.

Pentagon officials said on Thursday that the military was working out the details of how many U.S. military forces would be located at the bases at any given time, how long those rotational tours of duty would be, and what the troops would do once they were there.

By adding to the Pentagon’s vast logistics network, the agreement makes it more difficult for an enemy to target U.S. supply hubs in the region.

“Logistics wins battles and campaigns and wars,” said David Maxwell, a retired Army Green Beret commander who served in the Philippines.

In the early 1990s, the United States had nearly 6,000 troops permanently based in the Philippines. Officials said under the new basing plan, that figure would be dramatically lower, with a combination of uniformed U.S. service members, American civilian contractors, and local Filipino contractors and security personnel.

“Our actual presence will be very limited and temporary,” said Joseph H. Felter, a former top Pentagon official on Southeast Asia who now directs Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation.

In other parts of the world where U.S. forces are temporarily based, such as in Iraq, Syria and Somalia, military deployments of six months to one year are common, but the length of tour duties varies, officials said.

In any war, operational and supply bases would be among the first targets an enemy would try to strike. Mr. Maxwell said a key to the bases’ success will be what kind of air and missile defense systems are deployed to protect them against possible Chinese ballistic or cruise missile attacks, or warplanes dropping precision-guided bombs.

“If China is going to try to take steps with its missile arsenal to take out locations where the U.S. projects forces, it now has more targets it would have to deal with,” Mr. Stokes said. “China has a big missile arsenal and many aircraft, but this still presents it with a bigger problem.”

Source New York Times