The United States won a significant victory on Tuesday in its efforts to counter China’s rising influence in the South China Sea, as the highest court in the Philippines cleared the way for American troops to return to the country on a regular basis.
The Philippine Supreme Court, in a 10-to-4 decision, approved an agreement that would allow the American military to station troops and weapons at crucial bases in the Philippines, more than two decades after lawmakers in Manila voted to expel American troops in a show of anticolonialism. The Philippines was a United States territory from 1898 to 1946.
The decision came as the foreign and defense chiefs of the Philippines were in Washington preparing to meet with their American counterparts on Tuesday to discuss dealing with Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. It highlighted the shifting alliances in the region as China moves aggressively to build military facilities on top of submerged reefs in the disputed waters.
The Obama administration has sought to deter China’s efforts by increasing sea patrols in the region and providing more military aid to allies like the Philippines. But it has struggled to have an impact, and China has moved swiftly to build airstrips, military buildings and port facilities on top of artificial islands in the sea.
The 10-year agreement with the Philippines, reached in 2014, was seen as a critical way of enhancing American power in the region, giving the Americans a stronghold less than 500 miles from the islands built by the Chinese.
But for nearly two years, it languished, falling victim to legal challenges and a sluggish judicial system, dealing a setback to President Obama’s efforts to shift military resources to Asia.
On Tuesday, leaders in the Philippines praised the Supreme Court decision. Sonny Coloma, a spokesman for President Benigno S. Aquino III, said the agreement would bring a “generational leap” for the defense capabilities of the Philippines, which has one of the weakest militaries in Asia.
Senator Antonio F. Trillanes IV, the chairman of the national defense and security committee, said a stronger American presence would allow the Philippines to protect itself from China’s advances.
“It will have some psychological effect on the Chinese, knowing that the Philippines won’t be alone in this part of the world anymore,” he said.
SOURCE: JAVIER C. HERNÁNDEZ and FLOYD WHALEY
The New York Times