United States President Barack Obama said a 10-year defence pact that the Philippines and the United States signed yesterday is not meant to counter or contain a rising China.
"Our goal is not to counter China, our goal is not to contain China. Our goal is to make sure international norms and rules are respected, and that includes the area of maritime disputes," he said at a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
Officials from Washington and Manila signed the "enhanced defence cooperation agreement" shortly before Mr Obama arrived for a two-day visit. The Philippines is the last stop of his four-nation Asia tour that included Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
The defence pact will allow the US to rotate more troops, combat aircraft and warships in the Philippines, similar to an arrangement it has with Australia, where it has up to 2,500 marines in the northern city of Darwin.
It is also crafted to help the Philippines to acquire newer planes and naval vessels more easily, and to set up the infrastructure it needs to deploy these resources along its borders.
Mr Obama reiterated that the US will not be setting up new bases in the Philippines.
"I want to be very clear: The United States is not trying to reclaim old bases or build new bases," he said.
While he sought to soothe China, Mr Obama said he supported Manila's decision to challenge Beijing's claims over 90 per cent of the South China Sea at an international tribunal.
"We don't take specific positions on disputes between nations, but as a matter of international law and international norms, we don't think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes," he said.
Relations between Manila and Beijing have soured, as China increasingly asserts its claims over various islands, reefs and atolls in the South China Sea. Other claimants are Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, which held its largest military exercise since 2000 near the disputed Spratly Islands.
China is separately embroiled in a territorial dispute with Japan over a group of small islands in the East China Sea.
Mr Aquino, in his remarks, said China "should not be concerned" about the new pact as it largely involves procurement of military hardware and training that the Philippines needs for disaster prevention and relief.
The South China Sea "is not the end-all and be-all of our relationships", he said. "We have had good cooperation with them (China) in so many different fronts, and perhaps, one can even argue that this is the only sour point in our relationship."
Earlier, the National Security Agency's senior director for Asian affairs Evan Medeiros said at a news briefing: "We are not doing this because of China. We are doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner."
China's Xinhua news agency reacted angrily to the US-Philippine agreement, saying it may embolden Manila in dealing with Beijing.
Since he embarked on his four-nation tour last week, Mr Obama has had the delicate task of reassuring US allies in the region that he intends to deliver on his much-hyped "pivot" to Asia, while avoiding worsening relations with China.
His message to Beijing has been that it has to play by the rules to guarantee prosperity in Asia.
In Manila, he again dwelt on that theme.
"It is inevitable that China is going to be a dominant power in this region just by its sheer size," he said.
"The question is just whether other countries in the region are also able to succeed and prosper on their own terms and attend to the various interests and needs that they and their people have as well. That is what we support."