Preparing for War in the South China Sea

Ahead of massive war games involving US and Filipino troops, the Defense Department announced that it will get access to four new sites in the Philippines.

This article is a joint publication of Workday Magazine and The Nation.

“Imagine you have a visitor who comes into your house,” Corazon Valdez Fabros said over Zoom from Quezon City in the Philippines. “You welcome this visitor. But this is a visitor who has all the guns, all the materials, that basically you cannot object to because they are fully loaded. And you cannot even tell this visitor to get out of your house when you want them to get out.”

“That is the US,” she said.

Valdez Fabros has been organizing against the US military presence in the Philippines since the 1970s, when the US-backed dictator, President Ferdinand Marcos, was in power. Now, at the age of 73, she is ramping up her efforts again, this time under the presidency of Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the former dictator’s son. 

On February 1, President Joe Biden’s Department of Defense announced it had struck a deal with the Marcos administration to establish a foothold at four new “agreed locations” in the country. Then, on April 3, the DoD revealed that three of those sites are in the north, near Taiwan, a source of rising tensions between the United States and China. The new sites bring the number of known US military locations to nine—the largest presence in the country since the Philippine government kicked out the US military three decades ago.

The announcement comes just ahead of massive joint war games; an annual exercise called Balikatan, or Shoulder-to-Shoulder, is slated to begin on April 11. It will be the largest of its kind, with 17,600 troops expected to participate, 12,000 from the United States. (About 100 troops from Australia, and observers from Japan are also expected to attend.) Balikatan 2023 spokesman, Col. Michael Logico, told news outlets that the event will include the first live-fire water exercises between US and Filipino troops. In one exercise, participants will even sink a naval vessel.

For Philippine social movement leaders who oppose the US military presence, the developments are deeply concerning. The Philippines, the largest recipient of US military assistance in the Indo-Pacific, is just to the south of Taiwan and touches the South China Sea, parts of which are also referred to as the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines. The US has seized on—and escalated—territorial disputes in the South China Sea between China and some of its neighbors to justify an expanded regional role and presence, part of a bipartisan push for an increasingly confrontational stance toward China. But US lawmakers rarely discuss how a military buildup in the Indo-Pacific region affects countries like the Philippines, where the US military has already left a trail of harm, from sexual assault to child abandonment. Tobita Chow, the founding director of Justice Is Global, a group that advocates for military de-escalation, said that people in the Philippines “do not even exist to 99.9 percent of the US foreign policy world.”

But if the well-being of its people is being disregarded, its strategic location is not. In addition to the new sites, the United States is doubling down on existing ones. The Department of Defense said on April 3 it “intends to expand funding” of infrastructure investments at five pre-existing military locations, on top of the $82 million already announced on February 1. The Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines, implemented in 2014, says that the US can store weapons (except for nuclear arms) and build and operate facilities at “agreed locations” provided by the Philippine military, effectively placing US sites within Philippine military camps or bases. The United States is getting a sweetheart financial deal: Under the agreement, the United States does not have to pay “rental or similar costs.”

Roland Simbulan, a professor of developmental studies and public management at the University of the Philippines and author of The Bases of Our Insecurity, a study of US military bases in the Philippines, cautions that the publicly known US locations may not tell the whole story. “In our long history of our relationship with the US, especially the military, they have used a lot of secret facilities that are not publicized,” he said over Zoom from Manila. 

The Philippine Constitution states that “foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate.” To get around this, US officials like Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III have avoided using the word “base” to describe known sites.

But David Vine, a professor of anthropology at American University and author of three books about US military bases, including The United States of War, underscores, “The US military has frequently used a kind of linguistic subterfuge to disguise the presence of US bases and US forces around the world, often with the help of local governments that also have an interest in disguising or downplaying the US presence.”

Likewise, the United States claims its troops are temporarily rotating through the country. But Vine said this framing obscures the fact that the United States is maintaining a consistent presence. “On a de facto basis, the US has had many hundreds of troops, and at times thousands of troops, in the Philippines since 2002,” he said.

The Pentagon reports that, as of December 2022, there were 211 active duty US service members and 13 civilians employed by the Department of Defense stationed in the country. This number, however, is incomplete; not only is it old, but it does not include Army service members. (When asked for an accurate figure, the public affairs office of the Department of Defense referred The Nation and Workday Magazine to the December report. The public affairs office of the US Army suggested contacting the public affairs office of the US Army Pacific, which did not respond.) With the upcoming Balikatan military exercises, the number of US troops is about to increase dramatically, as is the presence of US military hardware. 

This US expansion in the Philippines is part of a larger picture. The United States is pursuing a military buildup in an arc around China: There are at least 313 US military installations in East Asia, according to a list provided by the Pentagon and cited by the Overseas Base Realignment and Closure Coalition. (The United States has roughly 750 military bases around the world.) 

China has one base in Djibouti and several in the South China Sea, bringing the country’s total foreign military bases to around eight, according to the count of Vine. (China claims its sovereignty extends to the areas where its South China Sea bases are located, but The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration disagrees with this claim, which has also historically been a point of friction with the Philippines and other nearby countries.) And China’s coast guard has, at times, harassed and displaced Filipino fishers. While both China and the United States conduct military exercises and other maneuvers aimed at projecting power in or near the South China Sea, Vine says the US military has pursued a far greater buildup in the region—near China’s borders. US expansionists, meanwhile, have been quick to exploit concerns among China’s neighbors over China’s increased economic and soft power, to promote a narrative of great power competition.

Amid this climate, Valdez Fabros, who is co-president of the International Peace Bureau, an anti-war network, said she is concerned that any spike in the US military presence makes war more between the United States and China more likely. “This may not be something that for sure is going to happen. But the mere fact that the US is here makes it more likely something can happen. Maybe there’s a miscalculation. These things happen.” 

“Why can’t they do this training in their own country?” she said. “That makes more sense. Of course, they’re doing it here to be aggressive.” Were a hot conflict to erupt, she said the US military presence guarantees the Philippines would be dragged into it. 

Simbulan shares this fear. “The biggest danger is the fact that the US presence in the Philippines will put us in danger of possible attacks on our territory and people in case there is a war between China and US forces,” he said. “We are the first line of defense in the US strategy.” 

For Renato Reyes Jr., the secretary-general of the left-leaning coalition, Bayan, the US presence itself inflicts harm, regardless of whether it leads to war. “It violates our sovereignty,” Reyes said over the phone from Manila. “It’s a clear sign that we are not really free.”

The Philippines was a colony of the United States from 1898 to 1946, subject to US military rule and violent repression of anti-colonial rebellion. From 1899 to 1902, the United States waged a brutal war against an anti-colonial independence movement, burning down entire villages. Up to 20,000 Filipinos were killed in combat, and as many as 200,000 civilians died as a result of starvation, disease, and violence related to the war, while around 4,200 people on the US side died. After the Philippines won independence, the US military maintained two large bases in the country, Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Base. Throughout this long relationship, the United States has used the Philippines as a springboard for military actions in the region, from the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion to the Korean War to the Vietnam War.

Following an anti-bases movement in the 1980s and early 1990s, the Philippines ousted the US military from the country. By 1992, the United States had left both Clark and Subic bases. 

In its April 3 statement, the Department of Defense sought to put a positive spin on the local impacts of today’s increasing US presence, stating that US infrastructure investments would “spur economic growth and job opportunities in their respective provinces.” But activists say they are troubled by the fact that, when the United States employed tens of thousands of Filipinos at the Clark and Subic Bay bases, those workers faced exploitation and wage discrimination, a dynamic intensified by US assertions that it could override Philippine labor law. Inequality between Filipino and US civilian workers on bases fueled labor organizing—and was a contributing factor to major strikes. A New York Times article documenting a 1986 strike that saw massive pickets and blockades at US bases and installations notes that Filipino workers’ salaries were “​​about one-seventh that paid to Americans.”

Valdez Fabros says another aspect of the US track record troubles her: The United States is moving to expand its military presence in the Philippines when it has not rectified its past environmental harms. 

These harms are not disputed: The US General Accounting Office acknowledged its environmental destruction in a 1992 report addressed to Senate leadership in the Subcommittee on Defense and Committee on Appropriations. “Environmental officers at both Clark Air Base and the Subic Bay Naval Facility have identified contaminated sites and facilities that would not be in compliance with US environmental standards,” states the report. At Subic Bay base, it states, “Lead and other heavy metals from the ship repair facility’s sandblasting site drain directly into the bay or are buried in the landfill.” Among those pollutants acknowledged in the report were “unknown amounts of polychlorinated biphenyl” at the Subic Bay power plant. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, PCBs “are probable human carcinogens.”

The report concludes that the United States has no legal obligation to rectify the damage, and the cost of restoration “could approach Superfund proportions.” 

There is evidence that proximity to the US base locations in the Philippines is associated with higher incidents of health problems, like cancer, leukemia, heart conditions, and miscarriages. Valdez Fabros said, in light of this, she is concerned about the environmental impact of the new US military locations, “which could be more spread out, so more civilians could be affected.” 

Not everyone in the Philippines has historically opposed the US presence, said Valdez Fabros, who describes a media environment where “we are bombarded” by pro-US spin. But for the country’s robust social movements, the US military foothold has long been a source of grievance—and a subject of close scrutiny.

In recent years, these activists have had plenty to investigate. Not long after the US military was ousted from the Philippines, it began making a stealth return, enabled by formal agreements. The Visiting Forces Agreement, implemented in 1999, allows the United States to send troops and civilian personnel for “official business,” as the State Department puts it, and says that, in most cases, US troops have immunity from the Philippine legal system. EDCA, which has a life span of 10 years, further entrenched the US role.

The US “war on terror,” too, was used to beef up the US presence. The United States deployed special operations forces in the Philippines to assist in the country’s domestic “war on terror” (framed as a “rotational” deployment, as the scholar Walden Bello recently explained in The Nation). The Philippines was also used as a launch pad for US wars in the post-9/11 era. 

As the US presence stretched into the 21st century, it brought its own harms—and opposition. In January 2013, the USS Guardian minesweeper, a naval ship, ran aground on Tubbataha Reefs, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Sulu Sea,  damaging over 25,240 square feet of coral and provoking outcry. And in 2014, protests swept across the Philippines when a US Marine, Joseph Scott Pemberto, murdered a transgender woman, Jennifer Laude, in Olongapo City. (Then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pardoned Pemberton in 2020.)

Simbulan said, given the current expansion, the issue of US immunity is particularly concerning, as it evokes the country’s long “experience of the US asserting extraterritorial rights.” And there is the secrecy around what, exactly, the United States is doing. “It’s not for public consumption what happens to these military facilities,” he said.

It is too soon, Valdez Fabros said, to provide any documentation of the harms of the ongoing US buildout. But, she said, groups are extremely worried—and monitoring closely.

The US “visitor,” she said, brings danger. “We don’t want any part in a war.”

Sarah is the Editor for Workday Magazine.

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