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

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

But Thursday’s announcement that the US military is expanding its presence in the Philippines leaves little doubt that the United States is positioning itself to limit China’s military and bolster its ability to defend Taiwan.

The announcement, made in Manila by Lloyd J. Austin III, the US Secretary of Defense, was just the latest in a series of moves by the Biden administration to strengthen military alliances and partnerships across the Asia and the Pacific with a view to countering China. especially as tensions over Taiwan rise.

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

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

Under Biden’s leadership, the United States is working to strengthen military ties with Australia, Japan and India, and has gotten the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to rule on potential threats from China.

Mr. Austin’s announcement indicates that the United States could use its own military to push back more forcefully against aggressive actions by the Chinese military in the South China Sea, where China and several Southeast Asian nations, including the Philippines, have territorial disputes. . More importantly, they could help Taiwan if the People’s Liberation Army attacked or invaded the democratic and self-governing island, which China considers part of its territory.

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

A congressional mandate requires each presidential administration to deliver weapons of a defensive nature to Taiwan, and the Biden team intends to accelerate that and shape the sales packages so that Taiwan becomes a “porcupine” that China fears. attack.

A greater US military presence in the Philippines would go further: it would greatly facilitate the rapid movement of US troops across the Taiwan Strait. The Philippine archipelago lies in an arc south of Taiwan, and bases there would be critical launch and resupply points in a war with China. The northernmost island of the Philippines, Itbayat, is less than 100 miles from Taiwan.

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

The announcement in Manila came just before Antony J. Blinken flew to China for the first visit there by a US Secretary of State since 2018. Chinese leaders could take that timing as a sign that the top priority US policy for the region is working with allies and partners to rein in China, rather than stabilize relations with Beijing.

“The US side, out of selfish interests, clings to the zero-sum mentality and continues to strengthen the military deployment in the Asia-Pacific,” Mao Ning, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, said at a press conference in Beijing on Thursday. “This would increase tensions and endanger peace and stability in the region. Countries in the region must remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the US.

The new agreement allows the United States to place military equipment and build facilities in up to nine locations in the Philippines, which would lead to the largest US military presence in the country in 30 years.

“This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness, increase interoperability. This is not a permanent base,” Austin said in Manila. “It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal, because, you know, it gives us an opportunity, again, to interact a little bit more in an effective way.”

The last US soldiers left the Philippines in the 1990s, and the country’s Constitution now prohibits foreign troops from permanently settling there.

In November, a Philippine general identified five possible sites for the deal. Thursday’s announcement mentioned nine, though Austin and his aides did not publicly say where the four additional sites would be located. Randall Schriver, former assistant secretary of defense for the Asia-Pacific region, said in an interview that he believes the four sites are on the northern island of Luzon, in the southwestern province of Palawan and part of the former US military installation in Subic. Bay.

Mr. Schriver added that the Pentagon’s goal is to obtain at least one site that each of the US armed services (the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force) can use as a point for emerging forces, if necessary. They wouldn’t just be airbases, and a big question is how much construction it would take to get each one ready.

The sites will likely be added to the US military’s regional exercise schedule as soon as possible, and the Pentagon could drop off the equipment rather than bring it back to bases, Schriver said.

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

“The sites could potentially be used for a wide range of missions, including 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 is probably logistics: storage of fuel, ammunition, spare parts and equipment, current and former military officials, including some who served in the Philippines, said.

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

By adding to the Pentagon’s vast logistics network, the deal makes it more difficult for an enemy to attack US supply centers in the region.

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

In the early 1990s, the United States had about 6,000 troops permanently based in the Philippines. Officials said that under the new base plan, that number would be dramatically lower, with a mix of uniformed US service members, US civilian contractors and local Filipino contractors and security personnel.

“Our actual presence will be very limited and temporary,” said Joseph H. Felter, a former senior Pentagon official in Southeast Asia who now heads the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation at Stanford University.

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

In any war, operating and supply bases would be among the first targets an enemy would attempt to attack. Maxwell said a key to the success of the bases will be what kind of air defense and anti-missile systems are put in place to protect them against possible attacks by Chinese cruise or ballistic missiles, or warplanes dropping precision-guided bombs.

“If China is going to try to take action with its missile arsenal to take out places where the United States is projecting forces, it now has more targets that it would have to deal with,” Stokes said. “China has a large arsenal of missiles and many planes, but this still presents a bigger problem for China.”