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As talk intensifies concerning new Marine rotations to the Philippines, the Philippine military is realigning and modernizing to accommodate plans for expanded interaction with U.S. forces.
The issue is politically sensitive throughout the region, and officials have been careful not to insinuate there are plans for a permanent U.S. presence in the archipelago. But on Sept. 4, Japan's Kyodo News Service reported the Corps would establish a brigade headquarters on the island of Palawan, in west-central Philippines, to include a force of about 60 Marines. U.S. and Philippine officials disputed the report, with the latter turning to local media to say plans call only for Marines and their Philippine counterparts to hold exercises.
But Palawan may indeed be preparing to host many more Marines, if rotationally. The Philippine government is planning to upgrade and retool its defense forces, in line with other countries in the region, including Australia and South Korea. And officials there are weighing contracts worth nearly $1.7 billion for new weapons, aircraft and communications systems, the Philippine Star reported Sept. 6.
The defense force also is considering moving a Philippine marine brigade back to Palawan.
Palawan, with a population of 893,000, lies in a strategic location facing the South China Sea along its west coast. It has a front-row seat to the territorial rifts and international skirmishes that happen amid clusters of islands and a sea rich in fish and natural resources.
The island has several military bases, including a camp for Philippine marines along the southeast coast facing the Sulu Sea. Antonio Bautista air base, located near the city of Puerto Princesa, hosted U.S. Marines during the bilateral Balikatan exercises last spring and the annual joint Amphibious Landing Exercise in October.
Expanded ties come as no surprise to one former general familiar with the region.
"With China rising, so will relationships with our allies," retired Lt. Gen. Jerry D. Humble told Marine Corps Times. He commanded the Japan-based 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, 3rd Marine Division, and Marine Corps Forces-Korea.
"What you're seeing with the Philippines … is a demonstration of the national strategy, and more engagement.
"You know what it's all about: The decade of the Pacific is coming, and that's because of China, basically," said Humble, who retired in 2003 and remains active with veteran and defense organizations. The region holds critical trading routes, he said, "and we have to engage."
Marines will benefit from more time spent in the Philippines and access to training areas, which include thick, steep jungles and sandy beaches to support amphibious operations, he said. Years ago, several Japan-based Marines would spend a month on the ground in Palawan, Humble recalled. Those exercises and tabletop war games helped nurture relationships at general-officer levels and down the ranks.