The United States wants a bigger military footprint in the Philippines and Indonesia, which could mean more Army rotations with the key Indo-Pacific partner in the coming years.
The decision, one of the initiatives Vice President Kamala Harris launched Monday during her visit to America’s oldest treaty ally in Asia, was announced the same day as a meeting between Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin and his Indonesian counterpart in Jakarta, Indonesia to discuss stronger defense ties.
In talks with Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. at the presidential palace in Manila, Harris also reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defend the Philippines under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
The high-level assurance from the vice president came one day after China’s coast guard forcibly seized Chinese rocket debris that Filipino navy personnel found and were towing to a Philippines-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea. China, the Philippines and four other governments are locked in increasingly tense territorial disputes in the strategic waterway.
“An armed attack on the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. Mutual Defense commitments,” Harris told Marcos Jr. “And that is an unwavering commitment that we have to the Philippines.”
Austin, meanwhile, pointed at the partnership with Indonesia as a means of countering China in the shadow of the current Russian war in Ukraine.
“We are meeting as the world is grappling with assaults on the rules-based international order, especially Russia’s unprovoked invasion against Ukraine,” Austin said. “And it’s especially vital now that more like-minded countries come together to uphold our shared principles, including the rule of law.”
In recent years, the Army has increased the number and duration of unit rotations to the Pacific, primarily through its Pacific Pathways partnership with multiple Asian nations and dedicated U.S.-Philippines exercises such as Balikatan, the most recent iteration of which concluded in April.
Army officials and current and past Pacific-based commanders have previously told Army Times that they want to increase the number and size of unit rotations to the Pacific, especially to partner nations for training in the region.
The Army established its fifth and final active-duty Security Force Assistance Brigade in 2020. That INDOPACOM-focused unit has ongoing training partnerships with the Philippines, Japan, Indonesia, Mongolia, Thailand and Malaysia, Army Times previously reported.
The 5th SFAB was in the Philippines in March to provide medical advisors for training with their Filipino counterparts. Medical advisors with the 6th Battalion, 5th SFAB created a hybrid Medical Advisor Team during the annual “Salaknib ‘22″ bilateral exercise, according to an Army statement.
Marcos Jr. said that given the upheavals in the region and beyond, “this partnership becomes even more important.”
On Tuesday, Harris is scheduled to fly to the western Philippine Island province of Palawan, which faces the South China Sea, to showcase the level of concern America has for keeping the busy waterway open for commerce and navigation and to assure allies like the Philippines.
China’s increasingly aggressive actions to fortify its claims to most of the busy waterway have alarmed smaller claimant nations. The U.S. has been helping strengthen the Philippine coast guard, which said it would welcome Harris aboard one of its biggest patrol ships moored in Palawan.
A former American colony, the Philippines formerly hosted one of the largest U.S. Navy and Air Force bases outside the American mainland. The bases were shut down in the early 1990s after the Philippine Senate rejected an extension, but American forces returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops under a 1999 Visiting Forces Agreement.
In 2014, the allies signed the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows larger numbers of American forces to stay in rotating batches within Philippine military camps, where they can build warehouses, living quarters, joint training facilities and store combat equipment, except nuclear arms. The Philippines could take over those buildings and facilities when the Americans leave.
After the agreement was signed, the Americans launched construction projects in five Philippine camps and areas, including in the country’s south, where U.S counterterrorism forces have helped train and provide intelligence to their Filipino counterparts for years. Many of the projects were delayed by legal issues and other problems, Philippine defense officials said.
Large numbers of American forces stayed in local camps in southern Zamboanga city and outlying provinces at the height of threats posed by Muslim militants, which have eased in recent years. More than 100 U.S. military personnel currently remain in Zamboanga and three southern provinces, a Philippine military official told The Associated Press.
China and four members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have overlapping claims to the South China Sea, home to vital shipping lanes, plentiful fish stocks and undersea mineral resources. China and ASEAN have made little headway in finalizing a code of conduct to avoid conflicts in the area. These disputes concern Indonesian interests as well.
The Army participated in an expanded version of the annual Garuda Shield military exercise, hosted by Indonesia this summer. The “Super Garuda Shield” included 14 nations that conducted a series of first for many of the partner nations. The more than 4,000 combined personnel across participating nations saw Australia, Singapore and Japan send troops for the first time, according to an Army statement.
In March, U.S. Army Pacific soldiers worked alongside members of the Philippine Army’s 1st Brigade Combat Team at Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija during the annual, bilateral “Salaknib” that focuses on “strategic readiness,” according to an Army statement.
From early to late March an estimated 2,200 Philippine and U.S. soldiers rank High-Mobility Rocket System live fires, team to company-level live fires, engineering projects and artillery and fire support mission training.
The March exercise validated a Jungle Operations Training Course, taught by U.S. soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division out of Hawaii.
Soldiers also conducted the first INDOPACOM use of Army Prepositioned Stock 3 during Philippine training in May. The prepositioned equipment was used by the 3rd IBCT, 25th ID during both Salaknib 22 and a separate exercise known as Balikatan 22.
“The employment of APS Afloat during Salaknib and Balikatan exercised the Army’s strategic readiness capabilities and demonstrates its ability to rapidly project power in the Indo-Pacific Theater during competition as well as during crisis and conflict,” said Col. Erik Johnson, commander of the 402nd Army Field Support Brigade. “Maintaining and repairing equipment forward in theater increases flexibility and ensures APS Afloat is ready and postured to respond quickly in support of combatant commanders’ requirements.”
At the time, Maj. Gen. Joseph Ryan, commander of the 25th Infantry Division, reaffirmed U.S. commitment to the Philippines in countering China and other threats.
“Most importantly, we built readiness and committed ourselves to this enduring treaty-bound partnership that guarantees when it comes to peace or war, that the United States stands with the Army of the Philippines side by side, ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific,” said Ryan. “No one, anywhere, should doubt that commitment. It is ironclad.”
More recently, U.S. officials told reporters that new areas have been identified to be developed to expand joint security cooperation and training. He did not provide details, including the type of military facilities, locations and the number of American military personnel to be deployed in those sites, saying the projects would have to be finalized with the Philippines.
Philippine military chief of staff Lt. Gen. Bartolome Bacarro said last week that the U.S. wanted to construct military facilities in five more areas in the northern Philippines.
Two of the new areas proposed by the Americans were in the northern Cagayan province, Bacarro said. Cagayan is across a strait from Taiwan and could serve as a crucial outpost in case tensions worsen between China and the self-governed island that Beijing claims as its own.
The other proposed sites included the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, he said. They both face the South China Sea and would allow an American military presence nearer the disputed waters to support Filipino forces.
The Philippine Constitution prohibits the presence of foreign troops in the country except when they are covered by treaties or agreements. Foreign forces are also banned from engaging in local combat.
Editor’s Note: The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that 5th SFAB was the final active duty SFAB to activate.
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.