US Army Chief Visits Philippines Amid Territorial Tensions With China
The U.S. Army commander met with the top Philippine brass here on Wednesday in the latest show of Washington’s military backing for the Southeast Asian nation as it faces territorial challenges from China.
The visit to Manila by Gen. James C. McConville, the Army chief of staff, was the second by a four-star U.S. general in less than a month. It occurred amid a raging dispute between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea, and in the wake of dramatic U.S.-Philippine war games staged against the backdrop of Sino-American tensions over Taiwan.
Ahead of a summit of ASEAN leaders in Indonesia, meanwhile, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he expected to have discussion on China’s actions in the Taiwan Strait as it is “a grave concern to all member states.”
In Manila, McConville met with Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Gen. Andres Centino, along with his Philippine Army counterpart, Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner, for closed-door meetings which, sources said, focused on boosting cooperation amid the regional tensions.
The generals “discussed the growing bilateral relationship between the Philippines and the United States, which was highlighted by the recent visit of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to the United States,” Centino’s office said in a statement.
On Wednesday, the military chiefs discussed the decades-old Philippine-U.S. military alliance. It is anchored in the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, which was recently updated to allow it to be invoked in case of an armed attack on either nation in the South China Sea.
“We are thankful for your commitment and your support. We appreciate you for coming here as it goes a long way in strengthening our alliance and promoting cooperation,” Centino said.
In his remarks, McConville described Marcos’ first official visit to the U.S. last week as setting “the stage for a bigger and stronger relationship.”
Earlier this year, the Marcos administration agreed to a deal with the U.S. to grant military forces access to more Philippine military bases.
While in Washington last week, Marcos said that the bases would not be used for offensive action against China, and that the Biden administration had not asked his administration to contribute Philippine troops for combat should war break out between the U.S. and China over Taiwan.
On Wednesday, Brawner played down fears expressed by China earlier that the U.S. Army could use Philippine military sites to intervene should Beijing attack Taiwan.
“What we are trying to do here is to establish sites where we could help each other, not just in terms of training, but also in terms of preparing for natural disasters,” Brawner told reporters.
He acknowledged that some discussions centered on ways to “further strengthen relations” through more frequent bilateral training and exercises to include “exchanges of subject matter experts.”
In February, following the announcement that the U.S. would have access to four additional Philippine military sites, Renato Reyes, secretary general of the New Patriotic Alliance, said the country must not allow itself to be used “as staging ground for any U.S. military intervention.”
Marcos talks Code of Conduct
Ahead of the ASEAN summit In Labuan Bajo, Indonesia, Marcos said that the 10-member bloc needed to hold new discussions on China and the South China Sea.
“The discussions that we had … close to a year ago, in that time, there had already been many changes. And that’s why we have to recalibrate whatever it is that we are planning to do,” he told Philippine reporters on Tuesday, according to transcripts released Wednesday.
Asked if he would push for ASEAN to finalize the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea this time around, he answered affirmatively.
“You cannot stop trying. So yes, I will bring it up again because when we talk about – when we talk about the issues on the West Philippine Sea (or) South China Sea, that issue will not be calmed down until we have the code.”
“The solution to all of these problems is really the new Code of Conduct. That is why I always say in every forum … that we really need to finish the Code of Conduct,” Marcos said.
Jojo Riñoza in Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem in Davao City, Philippines, contributed to this report.