US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Thursday that US troops and military equipment would be sent on regular rotations in the Philippines and that the two countries had started joint patrols in the South China Sea as China increasingly asserts its territorial claims.
The initiatives are designed so that the United States does not increase its permanent footprint in its former colony, but they demonstrate that the two countries are increasing security cooperation amid joint concerns over China’s actions in the region’s disputed waterways.
Countries across the region have expressed concern over China’s activities, but the broader American military presence was not meant to provoke conflict with the Chinese, Carter said.
“There will be a regular, periodic presence here of American forces,” Carter said at a news briefing in Manila with Philippine Defence Minister Voltaire Gazmin. “The things that we’re doing here are part of a pattern that goes back decades. They’re by the invitation of an alliance partner.”
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.
The United States has recently conducted such joint patrols in the South China Sea with Japan, but they are still relatively unusual.
Carter did not say specifically where in the South China Sea the patrols took place.
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 $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.
The Philippines has disputed China’s claims in a case it has brought before an international arbitration court. China does not recognize the case.
A contingent of US military aircraft and 200 US airmen from Pacific Air Forces would be at Clark Air Base, a former US Air Force base, through the end of the month, Carter said.