US new military bases: China-Philippine relations on downward spiral?

China takes a dim view of Manila’s decision to grant the US access to four military bases. While the two allies have framed the arrangement as bolstering deterrence vis-à-vis China, such a move is unlikely to deter Beijing.
Philippines and US soldiers salute in front of their national flags while their national anthems are played during the opening ceremony of the 'Balikatan' joint military exercise at the military headquarters in Quezon City, suburban Manila on 11 April 2023. (Ted Aljibe/AFP)
Philippines and US soldiers salute in front of their national flags while their national anthems are played during the opening ceremony of the 'Balikatan' joint military exercise at the military headquarters in Quezon City, suburban Manila on 11 April 2023. (Ted Aljibe/AFP)

On 3 April, the Philippine government announced that it would grant the US access to four additional military bases under their bilateral Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). A joint statement released on 11 April by the two countries’ 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue indicated that the US would allocate over US$100 million by the end of the fiscal year 2023 to upgrade infrastructure at the existing five EDCA sites and support the swift operationalisation of the four new sites. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson expressed grave concern and strong disapproval of the development.

A '100 percent provocation'

From China’s point of view, the Philippines’ EDCA decision, which is aimed at deterring China on Taiwan issues, is an act of provocation. Hu Bo, a Chinese South China Sea expert, characterised the Philippines’ decision to host additional US military forces as a "100 percent provocation" towards China.

With the EDCA decision, the Philippines has inserted itself in the heat of the Sino-US strategic competition, effectively facilitating US military projection into the region.

This decision represents a significant departure from President Marcos Jr’s initial friendly overtures towards China. Subsequently, the Sino-Philippine relationship started to deteriorate rapidly. Upon taking office, Marcos Jr’s administration promised a “friend to all, enemy to none” foreign policy. During his January 2023 visit to China, he stated that the Philippines-China relationship was in excellent shape and committed to elevating it to new heights. Concerning the Philippines-China maritime disputes, Marcos Jr emphasised that these issues should be properly addressed through friendly consultations.

Just one month after the Xi-Marcos meeting, however, Marcos Jr summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila, expressing “serious concern“ over China’s actions in the South China Sea. Thereafter came his decision to add new EDCA sites directly facing China on the grounds that it is important for "the defence of our territory".

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A Philippine soldier fires a Javelin anti-tank weapon system during the live exercise as part of the US-Philippines joint military exercise "Balikatan" at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila on 13 April 2023. (Ted Aljibe/AFP)

With the EDCA decision, the Philippines has inserted itself in the heat of the Sino-US strategic competition, effectively facilitating US military projection into the region. Since the US has made it clear that alliances with China’s neighbouring states are critical in deterring China, and even in winning a future war with China, the Marcos Jr administration’s decision to add additional military sites for the US military is provocative to Beijing.

Beijing has good reasons to believe that if a crisis erupts in the Taiwan Strait, these Philippine military bases would be used to facilitate US attacks on China and provide crucial logistical support to US troops.

Preparing for war with China?

An upgraded EDCA also adds to the belief among top Chinese leadership that the US is conducting a global campaign of “encirclement and suppression“ against China. The US-Philippines 2+2 ministerial joint statement asserts that both sides should redouble their efforts at modernising alliance cooperation to bolster their deterrence. Several mainstream US media outlets have published opinion articles such as “What the U.S. Can Do to Prepare for a War With China”, offering tactical advice to the US government for potential future conflict with China.

John Bolton, former US national security adviser under the Trump administration, recently argued that the US should “enhance and replicate” Indo-Pacific security efforts like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Australia-UK-US (AUKUS) trilateral arrangement to encourage more Asian states to join a new Asian NATO.

China also perceives the upgraded EDCA as a response to a potential US-China military clash across the Taiwan Strait. Whether willingly or not, the Philippines has, in effect, joined the US in making preparations to defend Taiwan. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly advocated defending Taiwan in the event of Chinese military attacks. Beijing takes these statements seriously.

Three of the four new military sites that the Philippines has allowed the US to use are located south of Taiwan. The Chinese ambassador in Manila has said, with some hyperbole, that the new EDCA sites are only "a stone’s throw away from Taiwan". But Beijing has good reasons to believe that if a crisis erupts in the Taiwan Strait, these Philippine military bases would be used to facilitate US attacks on China and provide crucial logistical support to US troops.

Although Manila contends that the new EDCA sites are defensive in nature and primarily intended for disaster relief, this argument is unlikely to reassure Beijing. Once China believes that the “one China" principle has been violated by others, its responses are swift and long-lasting.

For instance, China downgraded diplomatic relations with Lithuania when the latter permitted the opening of a diplomatic office using the name Taiwan in 2021. At a time when France, a major NATO ally of the US, carefully distanced itself from a potential Taiwan Strait conflict, Beijing perceives Manila as moving in the opposite direction to provoke China despite President Macros Jr’s assertion that new EDCA sites are not intended for launching offensive attacks.

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General Charles Flynn, commanding general of the United States Army Pacific (USARPAC) speaks to members of the media as he visited the troops during the live exercise as part of the US-Philippines joint military exercise "Balikatan" at Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija province, north of Manila on 13 April 2023, while Philippine Army Comanding General Romeo Brawner (right) listens. (Ted Aljibe/AFP)

Other states in region feel the pressure

Manila’s decision to upgrade the EDCA with the US puts other regional states in an awkward position. Leaders from Malaysia and Singapore recently returned from fruitful visits to Beijing in early April. As most ASEAN countries seek peace and stability in the region and attempt to mediate tensions between China and the US, Manila’s action raises concerns about regional stability.

China wants Manila to reiterate its position on the “one China" policy to further reassure Beijing through concrete actions.

Despite China’s evident anger with Manila regarding the new EDCA development, the Sino-Philippine relationship can avoid a downward spiral. Firstly, the two sides should maintain active diplomatic engagement to prevent further escalation, particularly to avoid military confrontation in Second Thomas Shoal. Secondly, China wants Manila to reiterate its position on the “one China" policy to further reassure Beijing through concrete actions. Lastly, China would welcome ASEAN member states stepping in to facilitate intra-ASEAN consultations before its individual member states make security moves that potentially compromise peace and security in the region.

The momentum of the EDCA arrangements means that the Sino-Philippine relationship finds itself at a crossroads once again. The two countries should take immediate action to avoid the deepening of differences and control possible crises in the region.

This article was first published by ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute as a Fulcrum commentary.

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