Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin flew to Manila this week to push for an early approval of the United States request to gain access to five more military bases in the Philippines.

It will be his second visit to Washington’s oldest military ally in the Indo-Pacific region as well as second high-level, face-to-face meeting with a counterpart after last September’s meeting with Jose Faustino in Hawaii.

The idea of expanding US deployment in the Philippines was first discussed in Hawaii and was followed up during the two-day Bilateral Security Dialogue in Manila in January.

Austin’s trip to Manila to follow up on its request to be given access to an air base in Cagayan province, close to the volatile Taiwan Straits, stresses the importance of the Philippines in America’s evolving security interests in the region.

Austin’s real interest in visiting Manila was to prepare for any contingency in self-ruled Taiwan as China has stepped up its military operations, threatening to take control of what it said was a renegade province.

From August last year when former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi made a brief stopover in Taiwan, China has been sending waves and waves of military aircraft to test Taipei’s readiness to defend its airspace. It has also been holding live naval drills around the island.

The United States and its allies, like Australia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and other North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, have been responding with freedom of navigation and overflights in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits.

The sealanes and airspace are crowded with competing military planes and vessels that miscalculations and potential accidents could happen anytime.

In fact, there had been near misses of collision between US and Chinese warplanes over the South China Sea and a US destroyer towing a sonar device hit a Chinese submarine shadowing the Aegis guided-missile ship.

These potential mishaps prompted Gen. Mike Minihan, head of the US air mobility command, to predict a possible war with China in 2025, an assessment which was quickly denied by the Pentagon.

However, General Minihan was not alone in predicting a conflict with China in two years. Several US security experts also made the prediction as Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces unprecedented civil unrest due to his draconian zero coronavirus disease (Covid-19) policy.

It has slowed down China’s economic growth rate, making many Chinese people unhappy. Protests were seen for the first time in key major cities. China’s leaders feared another Tiananmen incident could happen again, which the US and the West could exploit to weaken China.

It has to intervene and one effective formula is to go to war with another country to galvanize public support and to heighten nationalism. It could be a limited war, like the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Beijing could try to overwhelm Taipei and complete the invasion in under a week to prevent US intervention.

But Washington will not sit down and watch another invasion. It has promised to defend Taiwan, which will draw the United States into a conflict with China.

The Philippines, a staunch US ally, could be dragged into the US-China conflict because of the American presence in several local military bases in the country.

Washington has been using the Philippines as a logistics hub and potential staging point for US aircraft, including F16 fighters and P8 surveillance planes.

Under an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014, the US can preposition its troops and equipment in the Philippines on a rotational basis.

It has been granted access to four airbases and an army jungle training base. But it has requested access to five more bases, including airbases and a marine training facility.

Austin’s interest is for the Philippines to immediately approve the extra five locations to better prepare the US Air Force and the US Navy, including its Marine contingent, for deployment in the region.

Its warships have no problem in docking in Subic and other parts of the country but the US military aircraft require upgraded and secured airfields to land and take off F16s, P8 Poseidon, and a host of other aircraft to support US military operations.

US planes are mostly based in South Korea, Japan, and Guam. They are too far from potential flashpoints in the South China Sea and Taiwan Straits and the Philippines offers the best locations.

As early as the 2000s, The Rand Corp. had suggested to the US to rent a rock in the Philippines to move its air assets from South Korea and Japan.

By 2003, the US was illegally using a civilian airfield in Basco, Batanes to land and take off to refuel fighters and other planes returning to Okinawa from Diego Garcia during the War on Terror operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo allowed the use of Batanes for US air force operations. In return, the US designated the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally in 2003, making the country eligible for huge military aid.

But the country failed to exploit that status when Washington got angry when the Philippines pulled out its token military contingent of 50 soldiers in Iraq when a Filipino truck driver was kidnapped in Fallujah.

It took 10 years to repair the relations under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III when EDCA was signed and the “2+2” mechanism was initiated. A third meeting is planned in the second quarter this year in Washington.

There was a pause during the Rodrigo Duterte administration but under Ferdinand Marcos Jr, the two allies are back in each other’s arms.

In Davos last month, Marcos Jr said US and Philippine security relations will intensify with increased US deployments in the coming months.

As conflict looms in Taiwan Straits, Marcos Jr’s independent foreign policy of “friends to all and enemies to none” will be tested. But he cannot escape the country’s obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

The Philippines will always be a close ally of the United States whether Marcos likes it or not. Austin will get his extra bases before the 2+2 ministerial meeting in April. His trip to Manila was worth it.