The United States is increasing its military presence in the Philippines as its troops have been given access to four more sites in the country amid growing concerns in the South China Sea, an area the Western giant sees as crucial for its economy.
This developed following the meeting of US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with key Philippine defense officials—including President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., the commander-in-chief, and Department of National Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr..
Austin, who arrived in Manila on Tuesday night, flew to the country "to advance regional stability and further strengthen the defense partnerships with the United States," the US Defense Department said.
In a joint statement on Thursday, the US and the Philippines said they "are proud to announce their plans to accelerate the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)" and are looking forward to "the opportunities these new sites will create to expand our cooperation."
EDCA is the "key pillar of the US-Philippines alliance, which supports combined training, exercises, and interoperability between our forces," the two countries said.
What came with the acceleration of the EDCA implementation is the agreement of both sides to designate four new locations "in strategic areas" and "the substantial completion of projects" in the existing five locations.
Galvez, in a joint presser with Austin, refused to disclose the new locations.
Currently, there are five agreed military sites under EDCA. They are: Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu, Lumbia Airport in Cagayan de Oro, Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija, Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, and Basa Air Base in Pampanga.
"Expansion of the EDCA will make our alliance stronger and more resilient, and will accelerate modernization of our combined military capabilities," the joint statement read.
Austin's visit built on US Vice President Kamala Harris' trip to the Philippines in November last year, when the Western giant first announced that new EDCA sites will be identified.
In Palawan, the Philippine province closest to the highly-contested South China Sea, Harris made a call for the Philippine law enforcers to stand up against illicit activities in the waters, most especially in the West Philippine Sea.
As China is seen as increasing its activities on the South China Sea, Harris also said "America's prosperity relies on the billions of dollars that flow through these waters every day."
According to the joint statement, the identification of new EDCA sites will also "allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges."
A total of US$82 million have already been allocated by the US government for the infrastructure investments at the existing EDCA sites, the joint statement said.
"The United States and the Philippines have committed to move quickly in agreeing to the necessary plans and investments for the new and existing EDCA locations," it added.