Despite gaining independence in 1946, the Philippines is still under US political and security control, remaining a US bridgehead in the southern part of the Asia-Pacific region.
The sustained military presence of Washington was a requirement for the island country’s freedom. Under the Treaty on Military Bases, the Philippine government relinquished control of 23 military reservations totaling 4,000 square kilometers, or 1.3 percent of the country’s land area. Tens of thousands of American troops were stationed there.
In the years that followed, the territory under US control dwindled progressively, but essential facilities remained, the most important of which were the Naval Base Subic Bay facility fit even for nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and Clark Air Base facility, capable of hosting B-52 strategic bombers. The Filipinos refused to renew the agreement in 1991, and the Americans met the withdrawal requirements, handing over all infrastructure to the locals.
The United States was focused on the Middle East at the time, and a joint exercise and the potential of temporarily basing its ships in the framework of a mutual defense pact were deemed adequate levels of presence in the region. It seemed that Manila had finally gained full independence.
However, in the early 2010s, the primary focus of US strategy began to turn toward the Asia-Pacific region, reinforcing the role of its ally in Southeast Asia. In 2014, the two countries signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which, in addition to boosting cooperation, called for the rotational return of US military forces to five Philippine facilities.
The move did not require any excessive political effort on the part of Washington. The local elite, all involved in business with the US, could not defy a senior ally. Even the Philippines’ previous president, Rodrigo Duterte, who ardently urged a U-turn toward China, did not dare to dramatically alter the situation. The deployment of American forces back to the islands was slightly stalled during his tenure, but now the current Philippine President and loyalist to the USA, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., says the countries have agreed to post American troops at four more locations, with their geography clearly reflecting the plans’ anti-Chinese bent.
Three of them—two naval bases and one air base—will be positioned in the north of the island of Luzon, making them the closest place to Taiwan where US forces will be deployed, while also allowing them to control the movement of the Chinese navy through the strait between the islands. Another facility on southwestern Balabac Island is openly supposed to secure sea and air operations in the South China Sea, as well as radio reconnaissance of activities around Chinese outposts on the Spratly Islands and Mischief Reef.
A large portion of the Filipino people, particularly in areas where the foreign force is stationed, is vehemently opposed to the Americans’ return. First, the presence of thousands of aliens covered by the Visiting Forces Agreement excludes them from the field of local law, i.e. grants them full immunity, on a par with diplomatic immunity.
At a minimum, it leads to an increase in the number of offenses. Just look at the US base in Okinawa, the largest in the region. The presence of Americans has resulted in an upsurge in drug-related crimes, prostitution, and drunken debauchery in bars. As a case in point, the marine who hit an elderly Japanese man with a truck in November 2017 only got away with an internal investigation, which resulted in his reassignment.
When you consider that the presence of US military personnel on the islands makes the indigenous population a valid target under international law, all of this seems inconsequential. It turns out that if the conflict between the United States and China progresses further, the Filipinos will face an automatic nuclear strike. Given the flight time, it is not certain that they will even have time to realize what has changed in the big geopolitical game.