Blinken, Austin to meet PHL officials in SCS alliance push

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US State Secretary Antony Blinken and Defense chief Lloyd Austin will meet their Philippine counterparts next week, as Manila vowed to pursue efforts with Washington towards “collective defense” of the region around the disputed South China Sea.

The two nations’ top diplomats and defense chiefs will meet for the first time since 2016 in Washington to tackle key areas of cooperation, the Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement released Wednesday. “It will also be an important opportunity to substantively progress cooperation in key areas across the breadth of the relationship, including identifying concrete initiatives for promoting regional security” and countering terrorism and other transnational crimes, the statement said.

The Philippine side, which will be led by Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and Defense chief Carlito Galvez, will also seek to discuss energy security and trade ties during the meeting. The talks will take place after the US gained greater military access in the Philippines as tensions with China heighten.

Galvez, in a separate statement, said the Philippines will continue to work with the US and other like-minded nations towards defending the region after the Southeast Asian country announced four more sites this week under the two nations’ Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA. The sites include a naval base and an airport in Cagayan province and a military camp in Isabela province—all near Taiwan—and Balabac Island in Palawan province facing the South China Sea.

Galvez said an accelerated implementation of EDCA will protect the trade route in the disputed waters where the Spratly Islands lie—a group of islands being claimed wholly or partly by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

“Aside from enhancing our posturing of forces to address both external and internal security threats and challenges, we expect the construction of facilities and infrastructure upgrades to further help us ensure the welfare of our people,” he said.

The new locations will bring the number of Philippine military sites the US can access to nine, including five existing ones, under the defense agreement signed in 2014. The pact allows the US to rotate its troops for prolonged stays as well as build and operate facilities on those bases in the Southeast Asian country.

The US won access to the additional sites in February amid continued tensions with Beijing over Taiwan and the South China Sea. China warned on Tuesday the move would “lead to more tensions and less peace and stability in the region” with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning saying the US has been strengthening its military deployment in the region “in pursuit of selfish interests.”