US to widen military presence in Philippines amid China fear

Philippine military camps where U.S. currently has access.

The country used to host two 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 later returned for large-scale combat exercises with Filipino troops.

The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops and their involvement in local combat. The countries' Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement allows visiting American forces to indefinitely stay in rotating batches in barracks and other buildings they construct within designated Philippine camps with their defense equipment, except nuclear weapons.

Philippine military and defense officials said in November the U.S. had sought access to five more local military camps mostly in the northern Philippine region of Luzon.

Two of the additional camps where the U.S. wanted to gain access are in Cagayan province near Luzon island's northern tip, across a sea border from Taiwan, the Taiwan Strait and southern China. Other camps that would host American forces are along the country's western coast, including in the provinces of Palawan and Zambales, which face the disputed South China Sea.

"The Philippine-US alliance has stood the test of time and remains ironclad," the allies said in their statement. "We look forward to the opportunities these new sites will create to expand our cooperation together."

Austin is the latest high-ranking American official to travel to the Philippines after Vice President Kamala Harris visited in November in a sign of warming ties after a strained period under Marcos's predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte.

Duterte had nurtured cozy ties with China and Russia and at one point threatened to sever relations with Washington, eject American forces and abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows thousands of American forces to come each year for large-scale combat exercises.

"I am confident that we will continue to work together to defend our shared values of freedom, democracy and human dignity," Austin said. "As you heard me say before, the United States and the Philippines are more than just allies. We're family."