The Philippines military has been complaining since February about the increased presence of Chinese ships in the disputed area.
Manila's Ambassador to the US, Jose Cuisia, says there is an agreement to allow American ships to share Philippines bases on a temporary and rotational basis.
But many analysts believe that in the longer term, Washington is looking for a permanent arrangement.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Professor Romel Banlaoi, from the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research
BANLAOI: Well if we will force the issue of the South China Sea then we can say that it's something to do with the South China Sea, but remember the Philippines is a security ally of the United States, and currently the United States is implementing a policy of people to Asia or what Washington would describe as rebalance to Asia. And the Philippine government expresses serious interest to be part of the implementation of this rebalancing policy, especially in the context of Philippines growing anxieties of China's increased paramilitary activities in the South China Sea. So although both countries do not want to say that Philippine plans to allow US military access to our military facilities will not be used against China, but it has implications for China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. And it has also implications for our search for appropriate defence against China's presence in our maritime zones.
EWART: China though certainly based on the words of the President is plainly antagonised by this, the President has said prepare for a struggle. In your view is there growing potential for military conflict here, or is that perhaps going too far?
BANLAOI: When you hear China talking about the issue of the South China Sea we have to study the context. When Xi Jinping said prepare for the struggle, it can mean many things; it can be political struggle, diplomatic struggle, legal struggle or even military struggle. But if we will base the policy of China on the recently released defence white paper, China does not have any intention to use its military force to pursue its maritime claims in the South China Sea. So China still wants to uphold the wisdom of international law to do that, and that's the reason why the Philippine government is challenging China to do what it says, that if China respects international law, then you have to put the issue of the South China Sea before international arbitration. And that's what the Philippine government did. We submitted out claims before the international tribunal, but however China rejected our submission and continues to encourage the Philippine government to enter into bilateral negotiations. And China feels very, very disappointed on the current efforts of the Philippine government to internationalise the issue of the South China Sea, particularly inviting American military presence in this area.
EWART: Now of course the Americans will say and indeed are saying they're not attempting to step into the South China Sea dispute. But one official has been quoted as saying I'm sure it will come out, but he says exactly that, we aren't trying to step in and solve that issue. But from China's perspective they're not going to see it that way are they, they're going to see that the Americans are involved if they're sharing Philippine bases?
BANLAOI: Yes, and in fact that's the perception of China that the Philippine decision to allow US military access in our territory has something to do with China's maritime claims in the South China Sea. Although both governments are continuing to say that it's not something about China. But China does not buy that idea. Remember last year there was a two-plus-two meeting between the Philippines and the United States involving the State Department and the Defence Department. And in that two-plus-two meeting the Philippine government accepts the proposal of the United States to increase its rotational presence in the Philippines. And during the June Shangri-la dialogue in Singapore, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel formally announced that it will implement its increased US rotational visits to the Philippines, and that's something that the Philippine government welcomes, particularly in the context of our problem in the South China Sea. The Philippine government thinks that the United States is a force that can deter and contain China's assertive behaviour in the South China Sea. But of course the issue of American military presence in the Philippines also has a domestic dimension. First of all our constitution has a restriction on the presence of foreign military troops in our territories. So as long as it will not violate our existing constitution, then US military forces are welcome to visit us. That's why the Philippine government is now exploring the possibility of having access arrangements with the United States in order to make US military presence in the Philippines in accordance with our law. Right now we have a mutual defence treatythat's the one justification, we also have the Visiting Forces Agreement, and we have the military logistic support agreement. There are some sectors in our society stating that those agreements are not enough to allow increased rotational presence of the US in our territory, so that's the context on why our ambassador to the United States talked about the possibility of having another access agreement to make this US military presence in accordance with law.
EWART: Just picking up on that particular point, what do you then make of a quote from one US commentator in Washington who says that the Americans are looking to put people on these bases on a more permanent basis but without calling it permanent basing. Now if that happens essentially that is undermining the Philippines constitution isn't it?
BANLAOI: Well I consider that as a creative way of inviting US presence in the Philippines without violating our constitution. Let's call a spade a spade. The Philippine government says that it does not have any defence capability to counter the military presence of China in our maritime zone. And the only way to counter China is to invite our ally to deter China from its current assertive behaviour. So that's the option being used now by the Philippine government, that is to invite our ally to be around in order to check China's activities in our maritime zone. But of course we have a constitutional constraint, and one way of inviting American presence without violating our constitution is to have some sort of access arrangement. Remember the United States already has almost a decade of presence in the Philippines, in Zamboanga City with the presence of 600 to 700 US military troops belonging to the Joint Special Operation Taskforce in the Philippines, and they're involved in an counter-terrorism assistance program and a lot of counter-terrorism capacity building in the Philippines. So it's already being implemented but on a very small scale. But if the Philippine government wants a larger presence with an increased number of US military troops, then in order not to violate our constitution they are thinking of another access agreement. And that would require the approval of the Philippine Congress. And if the Philippine Congress approves that proposal, then it's in accordance with our laws. So it's legal to invite the US. But I don't think it will be on a permanent basis.