US Vice-President Kamala Harris visits the Philippines as the US seeks to expand its military presence

The United States is seeking an expansion of its military presence in the Philippines as US Vice-President Kamala Harris visits the country against a backdrop of China’s sweeping territorial claims in the region.

Ms. Harris will hold talks with President Ferdinand Jr. and other officials during a two-day visit that will include a trip to western Palawan province facing the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims virtually in its entirety.

She is expected to reaffirm the US commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty in case Filipino forces, ships and aircraft come under attack in the disputed waters.

“The United States and the Philippines stand together as friends, partners, and allies,” a statement issued by her aides said.

“Now and always, the US commitment to the defense of the Philippines is ironclad.”

A range of US assistance and projects will also be launched by Ms. Harris to help the Philippines deal with climate change and looming energy and food shortages.

The Philippines, a former American colony, used to host one of the largest US 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.

Defense cooperation

In 2014, the longtime 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 could build warehouses, living quarters, joint training facilities and store combat equipment, except nuclear weapons .

Police officers stand in front of a crowd of people holding signs and flags.
Protesters held a rally against US Vice President Kamala Harris’s visit in Manila. (AP Photo: Gerard V. Carreon)

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 US 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, according to Philippine officials.

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 US military personnel currently remain in Zamboanga and three southern provinces, a Philippine military official said.

A US official told reporters new areas had been identified and would 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 Lieutenant General Bartolome Bacarro told reporters last week that the US 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 near 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.

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