Protesters in the Philippines have been speaking out against the growing U.S. military presence in the country as nearly 18,000 troops from both countries take part in a massive military drill in the South China Sea. This comes as tension is escalating between the United States and China over espionage, economic competition and the war in Ukraine. The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, recently agreed to give the Pentagon access to four more of its military bases, including two located in the northern province of Cagayan about 250 miles from Taiwan. Ties between Washington and Manila have been growing closer since the inauguration of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the former U.S.-backed dictator of the same name. For more, we speak with Renato Reyes Jr., the secretary general of Bayan, an alliance of leftist groups in the Philippines opposed to U.S. militarism. He says that “poor countries like the Philippines” will be “the biggest losers if the conflict escalates between the U.S. and China.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
Nearly 18,000 troops from the United States, the Philippines and Australia are taking part in the largest-ever military drills that they’ve held in the South China Sea. The military exercise began on Tuesday and will continue until April 28th. This comes as tension is escalating between the U.S. and China. The Philippines, a former U.S. colony, recently agreed to give the United States access to four more of its military bases, including two located in the northern province of Cagayan, which is about 250 miles from Taiwan. Ties between Washington and Manila have been growing closer since the inauguration of Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. — yes, the son of the former U.S.-backed dictator by the same name.
On Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with their Filipino counterparts in Washington and issued a joint statement agreeing to expand military ties between the U.S. and Philippines. This is Secretary Austin.
DEFENSE SECRETARY LLOYD AUSTIN: In the face of coercion and gray zone aggression, Secretary Galvez and I agreed to redouble our efforts to strengthen our combined ability to resist armed attack by modernizing our armed forces. We also discussed near-term plans to complete a security sector assistance roadmap to support the delivery of priority defense platforms over the next five to 10 years, including radars, unmanned aerial systems, military transport aircraft, and coastal and air defense systems.
AMY GOODMAN: The Philippines Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo welcomed the U.S. offer for more military assistance.
ENRIQUE MANALO: We especially welcome the United States’ pledge to fast-track and ramp up support for the modernization of our defense, civilian law enforcement, and humanitarian assistance and disaster response capabilities, especially in the maritime domain, as well as the implementation of EDCA projects and investments in and around EDCA-agreed locations.
AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, in the Philippines, protests have taken place this week outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila and Quezon City, the home of the Filipino military.
RENATO REYES JR.: Clearly, the war games are intended to project U.S. power in Asia. It’s not intended to defend the Philippines. It’s not intended to help the Philippines modernize. It’s really intended to showcase U.S. power. And it is a preparation for war.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Renato Reyes Jr., the secretary general of Bayan, an alliance of leftist groups in the Philippines opposed to U.S. militarism and intervention in the Philippines, speaking outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila. He joins us now from the Philippine capital, Manila.
Renato Reyes Jr., welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of what Secretary Austin, Lloyd Austin, the defense secretary of the United States, is calling the largest-ever war games exercise of its kind in the South China Sea, and what this means to you?
RENATO REYES JR.: Well, good evening from Manila.
The recent war games — or, the ongoing military exercise in the Philippines is really intended to project U.S. power in this part of the region. And it has a very provocative nature, considering the tensions between the U.S. and China. The U.S. really wants to provoke China. And for the first time, they’re doing live exercises where they’re actually going to simulate the sinking of a ship in the West Philippine Sea. This is on top of having expanded U.S. bases in the Philippines, especially in areas that are near Taiwan and near the South China Sea. All this, taken together, would really raise tensions in the region and would trigger an endless arms race between the U.S. and China. And in that scenario, the Philippines would be caught between two opposing giants.
It is not in our interest to see the conflict escalate. We want peace in the region. We want respect for our sovereignty, for our sovereign rights. We don’t want incursions from China, but we don’t want to be used as a staging ground for U.S. military intervention and hegemony in the region. So, our position is that we do not welcome these exercises. They will have a long-lasting negative effect on the region. And they are also historically an affront to Philippine sovereignty.
AMY GOODMAN: So, in the last few weeks, the Philippines government announced the location of four new U.S. military bases. Can you talk about their significance and the military presence? I mean, going back well over a hundred years, the U.S. occupied the Philippines in 1898, but what this means now?
RENATO REYES JR.: Well, the Philippines hosted U.S. military bases from 1947 to 1991. These bases were all used for U.S. wars abroad. So, the Philippines became a launching pad for the U.S. War in Vietnam. They were also involved in the wars in the Middle East, in the Iraq War.
So, it’s pretty much the same scenario right now. They’re putting bases north of the Philippines so that the U.S. can have quick deployment for incidents related to Taiwan. They put up bases in the western part of the Philippines facing the South China Sea, so that the U.S. can deploy ships whenever it’s necessary to project its power in that part of the region. So, all these bases are not for defensive purposes. They’re actually allowing the U.S. to pre-position weapons, to pre-position warships, to station troops, which can be deployed at any time overseas for offensive military action. So, that practically drags the Philippines to a new round of conflicts, which are not in our interest. It’s a repeat of what we experienced during the Vietnam War and other U.S. wars thereafter.
AMY GOODMAN: China’s Foreign Ministry has said the United States strengthening its military deployment in the Philippines would only lead to more tension and instability in the region. This is spokesperson Mao Ning at a press briefing last week.
MAO NING: [translated] The facts are very clear: The United States, out of its own selfish interest and with zero-sum mindset, has continued to strengthen its military deployment in the region, the result of which is bound to increase tensions and jeopardize regional peace and stability. Regional countries should think deeply about what is appropriate and what is mutually beneficial, as to make choices that are truly conducive to their own interests and to regional peace and stability.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Renato, if you could respond to the Chinese spokesperson and also talk about the issue of the exclusive economic zone between China and the Philippines? A decade ago, China began building artificial islands and military bases on reefs in the Spratly Islands and on Scarborough Shoal, which it seized in 2012.
RENATO REYES JR.: Yeah. So, there’s an ongoing inter-imperialist rivalry between China and the U.S. They’re fighting for dominance in this region. So, China is claiming 80%, 90% of the South China Sea as part of its nine-dash line claims, and it has reclaimed several areas, artificial islands, artificial islands converted into military bases. On the other hand, you have the U.S. trying to solidify its foothold in the Philippines for its forward bases as part of the whole U.S. defense umbrella, from U.S. bases in Japan, U.S. bases in South Korea, military agreements in the Philippines, as well as military agreements with Australia. So, these are the two powers trying to outdo each other.
And if the U.S. ramps up its presence in Philippines, and China sees that as an imminent threat, then China would, of course, resort to building more bases on their artificial islands, and it will be a never-ending cycle, an arms race between these two giants. And when war erupts, who will be at the losing end? Poor countries like the Philippines, those who are not the superpowers, they are the biggest losers if the conflict escalates between the U.S. and China.
So, we’re pretty clear that we don’t want that to happen, and that’s why we don’t want these military exercises, live-fire drills, the sinking of ships. These are all very, very provocative actions. Just imagine if China would do such exercises off California. That would also trigger a very hostile response from the United States. So, really, this whole scenario that they’re doing, it’s going to lead to a heightened conflict. And it’s actually a preparation for war. And it’s something that we don’t want to happen in the near future.
AMY GOODMAN: And we just have 30 seconds. I’m looking at some of the signs at the protest: “Green spaces, not military bases.” Can you talk about the environmental impacts of U.S. military bases, and the impact on women and girls with the U.S. military there?
RENATO REYES JR.: U.S. bases, U.S. military presence has huge social costs. It leaves toxic waste. They destroy heritage sites. There’s prostitution. There’s abuse of women. There’s rape. There’s murder. All these are the usual consequences of prolonged U.S. military presence in any area. Any area in the world, that’s the kind of problem that U.S. bases bring about. So, as far as social costs are concerned, definitely we do not want to be shouldering that kind of a burden as a result of U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
AMY GOODMAN: Renato Reyes Jr., we thank you so much for being with us, secretary general of Bayan, an alliance of leftist groups in the Philippines opposed to U.S. militarism and intervention.
Next up, leaked Pentagon documents, how they show U.S. and British special forces operating inside Ukraine, as we continue our discussion with Spyfail author James Bamford. Stay with us.