MANILA — The United States and the Philippines are moving toward an agreement that will expand the American military’s presence in the Philippines, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Friday during a visit to Manila.
Hagel and President Benigno Aquino “reaffirmed the progress being made” in talks begun earlier this month to allow a bigger military footprint in the Philippines, the Pentagon chief said.
“This progress is welcome and encouraging. I noted that our negotiating teams are working hard to finish the framework agreement in the near future,” he told reporters.
Hagel’s optimistic comments appeared to open the possibility that the negotiations, which resumed this week in the US capital, could be wrapped up in time for President Barack Obama’s expected visit to Southeast Asia later this year.
An accord opening the way to a more visible role for the American military marks a shift in relations between the two countries more than two decades after the United States closed large bases amid anti-American sentiment.
But the Philippines faces territorial disputes at sea with China and has asked for US assistance to better monitor coastal waters. The United States, meanwhile, is seeking to bolster its ties across Southeast Asia, partly to counter China’s growing military power.
The proposed deal would allow more US troops, aircraft and ships to temporarily pass through the Philippines at a time when Washington is refocusing its attention on Asia after a decade of war.
Hagel sought to reassure Filipinos, whose senate voted out the American presence in the early 1990s, saying Washington had no interest in setting up permanent outposts.
“The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines — that would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality,” he said at a joint news conference with his Filipino counterpart.
“Instead, we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and partners,” he said.
The Philippines once hosted tens of thousands of US soldiers at two bases near Manila, but they were forced to leave in 1992. A new accord in 1999 allowed troops to return to the Philippines for joint military exercises every year.
Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the proposed agreement could permit US forces to regain access to Subic Bay, a large naval base north of Manila that the Pentagon handed over to Philippine control in 1992.
“Subic Bay is one of the facilities that was mentioned for the US forces to (have) access in. As soon as the framework agreement is complete, we will provide the necessary access to all these facilities,” Gazmin added.
The US defense chief went ahead with his overnight visit to Manila despite a tense showdown over Syria, with US forces prepared to launch punitive strikes against the Damascus regime if ordered.
Even with the turmoil in the Middle East, Hagel said the US remained committed to a strategic focus toward Asia, as well as its 1951 mutual defense pact with Manila.
Hagel was in Manila at the end of a week-long Asian tour amid fresh strains between the Philippines and China over rival territorial claims in the South China Sea.
The tensions have forced Aquino to call off a planned visit Sept. 3 to the Chinese city of Nanning to attend a trade conference.
The Philippines accuses China of aggressively pushing its territorial claims over most of the South China Sea, including waters close to Philippine shores.
Hagel endorsed efforts by China’s smaller neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to negotiate a South China Sea “code of conduct,” as well as Philippine efforts to solve the disputes.
Without mentioning China, he said that Washington wanted nations to settle their disputes through international law “without coercion or militarized attempts to alter the status quo.”
Hagel held separate talks with Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, and visited the US military cemetery in Manila before heading back to Washington.