The Philippine defense secretary said on Thursday that it is highly unlikely his country will allow the US military to use it as a springboard for freedom of navigation patrols in the disputed South China Sea to avoid antagonizing China.
Delfin Lorenzana said US ships and aircraft could use bases in Guam, Okinawa or fly from aircraft carriers to patrol the disputed waters.
Under President Rodrigo Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, some US aircraft and ships stopped in the Philippines on the way to patrolling the disputed waters to challenge China’s territorial claims.
Duterte, who took office in June, has taken steps to mend ties with China and became hostile toward the Obama administration after it raised concerns over Duterte’s deadly crackdown on illegal drugs.
Asked if the Philippines will continue to host US ships and aircraft patrolling the disputed waters, Lorenzana said Duterte will not likely allow that to happen “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It’s unlikely.”
“We’ll avoid that for the meantime,” Lorenzana said. “Anyway, the US can fly over there coming from other bases.” US officials did not comment immediately. The commander of US forces in the Pacific, Adm Harry Harris, said last month that despite Duterte’s rhetoric, military cooperation with Manila has not changed.
Duterte has publicly threatened to scale back the Philippines’ military engagements with the US, including scuttling a plan to carry out joint patrols with the US Navy in the disputed waters, which he said China opposes.
US-Philippine annual combat exercises have been reduced and will be redesigned to focus on disaster response and humanitarian missions. Among the maneuvers to be dropped starting next year are amphibious landing exercises and beach raids aimed at enhancing the country’s territorial defense, military officials said.
Duterte’s actions have become a hindrance to US efforts to reassert its presence in Asia, although the US military has vowed to continue patrolling one of the world’s busiest commercial waterways.
After Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing in October, China allowed Filipinos to fish at disputed Scarborough Shoal. China took control of the rich fishing area in 2012 after a tense standoff with Philippine government ships.