US ramps up troop presence in Philippines

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has announced that US troops and military equipment would be sent on regular rotations in the Philippines, and said the two countries had started joint patrols in the South China Sea amid increasingly assertive territorial claims by China.

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The new military initiatives, consisting of rotations of US forces and equipment, are designed so that the US does not increase its permanent footprint in its former colony, but demonstrates that the two countries are increasing security co-operation amid joint concerns over China’s actions in the region’s disputed waterways.

The first US-Philippines joint patrol in the South China Sea occurred in March and a second one happened early this month and would occur “regularly” in the future, the Pentagon said.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, through which about $US5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.

“Countries across the Asia-Pacific are voicing concern with China’s land reclamation, which stands out in size and scope, as well as its militarisation in the South China Sea,” Carter told reporters on Thursday.

“They’re voicing those concerns publicly and privately, at the highest levels, in regional meetings, and global fora.”

The Philippines has disputed China’s claims in a case it has brought before an international arbitration court.

A contingent of US military aircraft and 200 US airmen from US Pacific Air Forces would be at Clark Air Base, a former US Air Force base, through the end of the month, Carter said.

A US defence official said the US expected there would be additional follow-on rotations of aircraft.

In addition, up to 75 US troops, mostly Marines, would remain in the Philippines “on a rotational basis” after the conclusion of joint “Balikatan” US-Philippines military exercises this week. The troops would support “increased operations in the region”, the Pentagon said.