The Philippine Defense Secretary, Delfin Lorenzana, said that it is highly unlikely the Philippines will allow the U.S. military to come to their country as a “springboard” for freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea. Lorenzana states that recently elected President Rodrigo Duterte will no longer act as host to U.S. ships and aircraft patrolling the disputed waters in an effort to avoid “antagonizing” China. Lorenzana has advised the U.S. to consider bases in Guam, Okinawa, or nearby aircraft carriers as springboards for their patrols of the South China Sea instead.
The Chinese have claimed ownership over the South China Sea based on an outdated demarcation line map known as the “nine-dash line” despite a UN tribunal refuting these claims. Duterte has taken huge steps to repair relations with China since taking office in June, 2016. Lorenzana has stated that the reason for refusing the U.S. military access is solely to prevent offending the Chinese. He told reporters that the purpose of denying the U.S. access is “to avoid any provocative actions that can escalate tensions in the South China Sea.”
He went on to say they’ll “avoid that for the meantime, Anyway, the U.S. can fly over there coming from other bases.”
Duterte has also publicly stated that he will scale back U.S.-Philippine military engagement and joint operations. Annual combat exercises have been severely reduced and will be redesigned focus on disaster response and delivering humanitarian aid.
Relations between the Chinese and the Philippines have improve since Duterte took office. Shortly after a meeting between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, Filipino fishing boats were allowed access to the disputed Scarborough Shoal that has been under Chinese control since 2012. The Chinese Navy has also allowed Philippine Coast Guard ships to resume patrols of the Shoal.
Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, states that military cooperation with the Philippines has not changed despite the claims made by Lorenzana and Duterte.