Jun 28, 2013

    Manila looks to US and Japan

    THE Philippines said yesterday it was looking to give the United States and Japan greater access to its military bases, as it seeks to counter what it perceives as a rising security threat from China.

    The government was initially drafting a plan that would allow US forces to spend more time on Filipino bases, something that could also be offered to Japan's military later, Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.

    "If and when there is agreement on the access, then there will be equipment coming in from the US," Mr Gazmin told a joint news conference in Manila after meeting visiting Japan Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera.

    "Now, as far as Japan is concerned, we do welcome other countries - particularly Japan since it is a strategic partner - in accordance with our existing protocols."

    President Benigno Aquino had already stated that the Philippines would welcome an increased US military presence, amid tense disputes with China over competing claims to parts of the South China Sea.

    However, Mr Gazmin's comments indicated that the Philippines was hoping to expand on the standard military exercises that the two nations' armed forces regularly engage in.

    "Modalities for increased rotational presence are right now being examined. One modality is the conduct of high-value, high-impact exercise," he said, without elaborating.

    However, he emphasised the plan would not see any new bases or a permanent US presence in the Philippines.

    Japan and the Philippines, who both share a rival claimant in China, stepped up their "strategic partnership" in the field of defence, particularly in maritime affairs, after defence ministers of both countries met at Camp Aguinaldo.

    Mr Onodera and Mr Gazmin met at the Department of National Defence Headquarters for more than an hour, where they discussed the strengthening of defence cooperation and issues they were both facing.

    Mr Onodera emphasised that they were "very concerned" with the Philippines' situation in the South China Sea, and supported its position that the territorial dispute be solved through international arbitration and not through the use of force.

    When asked about the Philippines' plan, the Chinese Foreign Ministry urged its neighbours to push for peace.

    Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying told reporters: "China urges the Philippines and regional countries to meet one another halfway, make joint efforts to maintain mutual trust between countries, make positive efforts towards regional peace and security, and play a constructive role."

    The US had tens of thousands of troops stationed in the Philippines, at the Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base north of Manila, until the early 1990s.

    The US, a former colonial ruler of the Philippines, was forced to abandon the bases amid anti-US sentiment and a row over rent. The Constitution now bans any permanent foreign bases in the Philippines.

    However, the Clark and Subic facilities, now partly converted for business use, still host and service US military aircraft and warships on short-term exercises.

    One of those began yesterday in waters between the Philippines' main island of Luzon and a disputed shoal now occupied by China.