The United States won a significant victory in its efforts to counter China’s rising influence in the South China Sea, as the highest court in the Philippines cleared the way for American troops to return to the country.
The Philippine Supreme Court, in a 10-to-4 decision, approved an agreement that would allow the American military to station troops and weapons at strategic bases in the Philippines, a former American territory, more than two decades after lawmakers in Manila voted to expel American troops in a show of anti-colonialism.
The decision seems likely to heighten tensions between the United States and China, which is seeking to establish itself as a dominant power in the region by building military facilities on top of submerged reefs in the South China Sea, a major shipping route.
“The South China Sea will be more crowded, and the risk for a military conflict will continue to rise,” said Zhu Feng, the executive director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University.
Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter met on Tuesday with their Filipino counterparts in a long-scheduled meeting in Washington. “It’s a very important decision,” Mr. Kerry said during remarks he gave at the State Department. “And we look forward to implementing this accord, which will increase the inter-operability of our armed forces and contribute to modernization and improve our joint capacity to respond to humanitarian emergencies.”
The 10-year accord will give the United States a stronghold less than 500 miles from islands built by the Chinese, from which American troops can help train Philippine forces, construct military facilities and deploy planes and ships.
Over the past year, the Obama administration has struggled to contain the ambitions of China, which has rushed to expand its territory in the sea, despite the objections of nearby countries including Vietnam and the Philippines.
In a show of its determination, China said last month that it had, for the first time, landed civilian planes on newly completed airstrips in the Spratly Islands, a possible precursor to military aircraft. The state-controlled news media published photos of flight attendants smiling, waving and snapping selfies along the runway, about 500 miles from mainland China.
The Obama administration has sought to deter China by increasing sea patrols in the region and providing more military aid to allies like the Philippines. But it has struggled to make an impact, and China has pushed ahead with construction of airstrips, military buildings and port facilities.
The approval of the agreement in the Philippines, where many people are still wary of the United States military, highlighted deep anxieties and shifting alliances in the region.
Vietnam, which has sought closer ties with the United States recently, angrily protested China’s decision to land civilian planes on the islands. Singapore last month agreed to allow the United States to deploy spy planes to patrol the South China Sea from its air bases.
“What the Chinese should realize is that its neighbors are getting increasingly nervous about Chinese coercion,” Bonnie S. Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote in an email. “It appears China is playing the long game and expects its neighbors to eventually accommodate to Chinese interests.”
The defense agreement with the Philippines, first reached in 2014, languished for nearly two years, caught in legal challenges and a sluggish judicial system, hampering President Obama’s broader shift of military resources to Asia.
Philippine leaders praised the Supreme Court’s decision. President Benigno S. Aquino III, said the agreement would allow a “generational leap” in the defense capabilities of the Philippines. (NY Times)