Defense ministers for the Philippines and France vowed Saturday to pursue an agreement that would allow them to deploy troops to each other’s territories, the latest such deal sought by the archipelagic nation located in the strategic South China Sea.
Speaking following a meeting in Manila, Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and his French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu said they agreed to seek authorization from their respective presidents and relevant agencies to start negotiations for a visiting forces agreement.
The Philippines already has similar pacts with the United States and Australia, and has agreed to start talks for one with Japan.
Manila has been seeking to boost defense ties in the Asia-Pacific region and beyond in the face of China’s increasing confidence in asserting its claims over the South China Sea.
The agreements create the legal framework for countries to send defense personnel to each other’s territory for training and other operations.
“We agreed to work on shared values, shared cooperation, not only in the South China Sea but also in the greater Pacific area where France also has a presence and which we want to further defense cooperation and presence with the other Oceanic nations,” Teodoro said.
Lecornu, the first French defense minister to make an official visit to the Philippines, said the French navy already had a “high number of operations and training in the region.”
“We are working on an agenda of strengthening our presence in the Indo Pacific,” he said, using a term used by the United States and its allies for the Asia-Pacific region.
Neither Teodoro nor Lecornu provided a timeline for the start of talks on a visiting forces agreement.
It was part of a “letter of intent” signed by the pair to “raise the level of interaction and to consolidate their exchanges through practical cooperation,” a joint statement said.
The Philippines has had multiple confrontations with China over disputed islands in the South China Sea.
Beijing claims most of the sea, including waters and islands close to the shores of its neighbours, and has ignored an international tribunal decision that its assertion has no legal basis.
It deploys vessels to patrol the waters, and has built artificial islands and military installations to reinforce its stance.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam have also staked claims to various islands and reefs in the sea, which is believed to have rich petroleum reserves deep beneath its waters.
France has been seeking to reassert its importance in the Asia-Pacific region, where China and the United States are vying for influence.
The European country has 1.6 million citizens in the Asia-Pacific across seven overseas territories, including New Caledonia and French Polynesia, and an exclusive economic zone spanning nine million square kilometers (3.5 million square miles).