MANILA -- The United States is negotiating an agreement to allow it to position military equipment and rotating personnel in the Philippines while avoiding the controversial issue of re-establishing American bases in the country, according to officials from both countries.
The negotiations for increased military access by the United States take place against the backdrop of simmering tensions between the Philippines and China over areas in the South China Sea claimed by both countries.
The Philippines, which has a small navy and air force, is relying on support from the United States to modernize its military and upgrade its capabilities. Part of this military relationship has involved regular short-term visits by American military forces for joint training, humanitarian work and disaster response.
The arrangement under negotiation now would allow American forces to visit for longer periods of time and be stationed on Philippine military bases. It would also allow American military equipment to be based in the Philippines, officials said.
"An access agreement would increase opportunities for joint military training and exercises and allow the pre-positioning of equipment and supplies enabling us to respond quickly to disasters," said Elizabeth Mesa, a spokeswoman for the American Embassy in Manila.
"The United States is not seeking to create or reopen any military bases in the Philippines," she added.
The United States maintained large military bases in the Philippines for nearly a century as it countered threats from Japan before World War II and concerns about the spread of Communism during the cold war. In 1992, the last American base in the country was closed after divisive street protests and a decision by the country's Senate to discontinue the American military presence in the country. The presence of United States military forces in the Philippines remains controversial to this day.
Raul Hernandez, a spokesman for the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, reiterated that no new American bases were planned and said that any new agreement would be in line with the Philippine Constitution. He said that the discussions with the United States involve the use of "rotational" forces.
"We continue to talk and refine with the United States the modalities and parameters for increased rotational presence of United States forces in the Philippines," he said.
One model of the use of rotational forces in the Philippines is the Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, a contingent of about 500 members of the United States military who come from various branches of service.
The task force, which focuses on counterterrorism, has been based within a Philippine military base in the southern Philippines since 2002. Though the facility is officially considered temporary, it has many of the trappings of a traditional United States military base, including barracks, dining facilities and a command center.
The United States has also been active in the former United States naval base in Subic Bay. The Department of National Defense of the Philippines last year reserved the airport at Cubi Point, in Subic, for future military use.
Subic Bay is currently a special economic zone catering to private investors, but last year a subsidiary of the United States defense contractor Huntington Ingalls Industries set up operation for the stated purpose of servicing United States Navy ships. The former naval base frequently hosts United States Navy ship visits.
The American military use of Subic, partially through commercial means, and the rotational presence model used in the southern Philippines are both indicators of what an American presence in the Philippines might look like in years to come, said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for IHS Jane's Defense Weekly.
"The U.S.-Philippine talks build on the back of last year's tentative agreements about Subic Bay and Cubi Point, which some might say are already acting as de facto bases for U.S. assets," he said. "Certainly the buildup in Subic by companies that expect to support the U.S. military suggests an expectation that this is going to be a semipermanent presence."
The United States facility in the southern Philippines, called Joint Special Operations Task Force Philippines, or JSOTF-P, is a likely model for Subic, he said.
"JSOTF-P is a great example of a modern, 21st-century military operation," he said. "The way in which it negotiates the political sensitivities of having U.S. forces on the ground in the Philippines also suggests it is a good template for the Subic Bay/Cubi Point setup."
Paula Garcia, a spokeswoman for the Philippine Department of National Defense, noted that the two sides have not yet come to a final decision on the future makeup of United States forces in the Philippines.
"Everything is still on the drawing board," she said.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.