MANILA — U.S. and Philippine officials will meet this week to discuss expanding American presence in the Asian nation, a senior diplomat said, amid tensions with China over its claims to vast waters in the region.
The meetings in Manila on Dec. 11 and 12 will have a special focus on defense and regional matters, Philippine Assistant Secretary for U.S. affairs Carlos Sorreta told reporters.
“Foremost in the agenda is the increased rotational presence” of U.S. forces in the Philippines, he said Dec. 10.
This refers to U.S. troops and ships passing through the country for training or exercises, circumventing a constitutional ban on foreign bases in the Philippines.
He said the meetings with U.S. assistant secretaries for defense and state were not about the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea.
But he said “as public officials answerable to their people and their security, it’s very difficult not to discuss the West Philippine Sea,” using Manila’s term for the South China Sea.
The two countries’ officials will discuss boosting the number of visits of American troops, ships and aircraft while increasing U.S. defense aid to the poorly equipped Philippine military, Sorreta said.
The discussions will also look at more training for Filipino troops and increased help in humanitarian and disaster relief.
A rotating force of 600 U.S. Special Forces has been stationed in the southern Philippines since 2002 to help train local troops in how to combat Islamic militants.
The Philippines has sought to boost its ties with the United States in recent years following increasing aggressiveness by China in claiming virtually the entire South China Sea, even up to the coasts of its neighbors.
In October, a Filipino official said a former U.S. naval base in this country, facing the South China Sea, could play a key role as a hub for American ships as Washington moves to strengthen its presence in the Asia-Pacific.
Tensions with China have increased since April following a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships over the South China Sea shoal, which both claim as their territory.
Sorreta said China should not be alarmed by the effort to improve Philippine-U.S. ties.
But, he stressed, “with our without the Americans, we will take our stand”.