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U.S. Enhances Air Operations for the Philippines as China Pushes for Dominance

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The Basa Air Base, a key site under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the United States and the Philippines, is preparing for the addition of a substantial 625,000-square-foot transient parking apron. This new facility, designed to accommodate up to 20 aircraft, is part of a concerted effort to bolster the capabilities of the Philippine Air Force. The Pentagon’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), with China identified as the pacing threat, is funding this project. For the fiscal year 2024, the Pentagon has requested a significant budget of $9.1 billion for the PDI, underlining the strategic importance of the initiative.

This upgrade at Basa Air Base is just one component of a larger pattern of U.S. investments in the Indo-Pacific Command and its allies in the western Pacific, including bases in Australia and the Northern Mariana Islands. The U.S. Air Force has emphasized the necessity of these investments, with budgetary documents stating the Philippine Air Force does not currently have “aircraft parking apron space sufficient for United States aircraft.”

Basa Air Base, with a storied history dating back to World War II, plays a pivotal role in the Philippines’ defense infrastructure. It is home to the Philippines’ only fighter squadron of FA-50PH Fighting Eagles and has been a focal point for joint training exercises with U.S. forces. In 2023, the base hosted F-22 Raptors for the first time, marking a significant milestone in U.S.-Philippine military cooperation.

The ongoing military modernization of the Philippines, including the potential procurement of new multi-role fighters like the Swedish JAS-39 Grippen or the American F-16 Fighting Falcon, further underscores the strategic importance of Basa and other EDCA sites. The Philippine Air Force is expected to finally select a jet for its Multi-Role Fighter program, with many Philippine officials favoring the F-16 Fighting Falcon. These new acquisitions, when procured, are likely to be based at Basa and other EDCA sites across the country.

The Philippine government’s decision to expand the number of bases accessible to U.S. forces under EDCA, now totaling nine, along with significant investments in infrastructure such as runways, communication systems, and fueling facilities, demonstrates a clear strategic shift. This shift is further evidenced by the recent completion of a runway renovation and extension at Basa, allowing larger logistical aircraft to operate from the site.

The deepening U.S.-Philippines military cooperation is largely driven by escalating tensions in the South China Sea. The Chinese military’s activities, including the construction of military outposts on Mischief Reef and the harassment of Filipino troops and fishermen, have intensified security concerns for the Philippines. Jay Tarriela, spokesman for the Philippine Coast Guard, reflected on the historical context of these tensions, stating, “If in 1992, the US didn’t leave, I don’t think that we will be losing Mischief Reef.” This sentiment highlights the perceived protective role of U.S. forces in the region.

The return of American troops to the Philippines, authorized by President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., marks a significant reversal from his predecessor’s policies and a reaffirmation of the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. This shift towards the U.S. is underscored by Marcos Jr.’s commitment to expanding the military footprint under EDCA. He has emphasized the defensive nature of this cooperation, stating, “It is only natural for the Philippines to look to its sole treaty partner in the world to strengthen and to redefine the relationship that we have and the roles that we play in the face of those rising tensions that we see now around the South China, Asia Pacific and Indo-Pacific region.”

The Philippines’ strategic moves, including granting the U.S. expanded access to military bases and fortifying its position in the South China Sea, signal a proactive effort to enhance deterrence against China’s influence. This development echoes the policies of Marcos Jr.’s father, who leveraged the Philippines’ Cold War alliance with Washington while pursuing strategic autonomy.

The U.S.-funded upgrade of the Philippine Air Base and the broader context of strengthening U.S.-Philippines military cooperation are clear indicators of the shifting geopolitical landscape in the Asia-Pacific region. Driven by concerns over China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, these developments highlight the increasing strategic importance of the Philippines in regional security dynamics. The Philippines, once under the security umbrella of the United States, is now repositioning itself as a crucial ally in countering the pacing threat posed by China.

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