(Bloomberg) -- The US secured access to more Philippine military bases, clearing the way for a greater American presence in the Asia-Pacific region as tensions with China over Taiwan and the South China Sea persist.

The announcement Thursday of a plan to designate four new locations in “strategic areas” where the US will have expanded access didn’t mention China. Instead, it said the new sites — to be identified later — “will allow more rapid support for humanitarian and climate-related disasters in the Philippines, and respond to other shared challenges.”

But a key shared challenge the two allies have is China, given Beijing’s increasingly assertive claims to a wide swath of the South China Sea, including islands and reefs Manila sees as its own. Chinese ships have regularly been seen trailing Philippine fishing vessels, often intercepting them and forcing them to divert from contested areas long seen as within the country’s exclusive economic zone, or EEZ.

“It is a really big deal,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Thursday at a news conference alongside Philippine Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez. “This is an opportunity to increase our effectiveness and interoperability. It is not about permanent basing.” 

The accord will bring the total number of military sites the US can access to nine, including five existing ones, under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation 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.

Three Philippine bases near Taiwan - two in the northern province of Cagayan and one in Isabela province - in addition to one in Palawan near the South China Sea, are among the new sites that are being considered where US forces may gain greater access, a former Philippines military chief said in November.

That would mark a strategic victory for the Biden administration, which is readjusting its force presence in region and has sought to rebuild previously strained ties between the US and the Philippines after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last year.  

The move jump starts US-Philippines collaboration in responding to China’s “harassment of Filipino economic activities along its EEZ” and will “address the blockade thrown around Scarborough and Second Thomas Shoals by Chinese Coast Guard and militia,” said Rommel Ong, a retired rear admiral in the Philippine Navy who is now a professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s School of Government.

China criticized the announcement as another examples of the US’s “Cold War, zero-sum mentality.”

“This is an act that escalates tensions in the region and is dangerous to regional peace and stability,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said Thursday at a regular press briefing in Beijing. “Regional countries should remain vigilant about this and avoid being used by the US.”

The announcement comes after the US last week confirmed that starting in 2024 it would be relocating thousands of Marines based in Japan to a reactivated facility in Guam, a move seen as part of a wider effort to disperse American forces in the Pacific to help it better confront China in case of a crisis.

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On Thursday the US and Philippines also agreed to substantially complete projects at the five existing military sites, including a base in Palawan province, near the South China Sea. The US has allocated over $82 million toward infrastructure investments in the five sites.

“Our nations share the belief that sustainable development and genuine peace should go hand in hand,” Philippine Defense Secretary Galvez said at news conference with Austin. The two defense chiefs agreed to “deepen bilateral cooperation to support the Philippine defense capability needs as well as the Philippine-US alliance,” he said.

Austin is the latest senior US official to visit after Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made trips to Manila in recent months and assured the Philippines of support. The US has a seven-decades-old mutual defense treaty with the Philippines, its former colony. 

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President Marcos has sought greater political and economic cooperation with Washington. Early in his presidency, Marcos said he couldn’t envision his nation’s future without the US. He also recently said that he hopes Washington will maintain its South China Sea presence, a sore point with Beijing.

Marcos, who also met with Austin on Thursday, said the US has pledged to help the Philippines modernize its defense capabilities. He said “the future of the Philippines and, for that matter, the Asia Pacific will always have to involve the United States.”

--With assistance from Ditas Lopez, Colum Murphy and Philip J. Heijmans.

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