Manila pushes for greater US military presence

More American troops sought but no permanent bases

AS TENSIONS escalate between Manila and Beijing, the Philippines is pushing ahead with a plan to allow more American troops, aircraft and ships on its soil and in its waters.

A day after President Benigno Aquino was forced to abruptly cancel a scheduled trip to China, he met visiting United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and discussed expanding military ties, including the possibilities for the increased temporary deployment of US troops in the Philippines.

However, Mr Hagel, seeking to reassure Filipinos - whose anti-American sentiments two decades ago led to the closure of US naval and air force bases in the country - said Washington did not seek permanent bases "that would represent a return to an outmoded Cold War mentality", reported Agence France-Presse.

"Instead, we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation befitting two great allies and partners," he said at a news conference with his Philippine counterpart Voltaire Gazmin. This would include sharing US experience in building a modern military.

Mr Aquino on Thursday also ruled out any possibility of a return to the days of permanent bases for the US military.

"We have the Visiting Forces Agreement and that is the extent that is allowed under the Constitution," he told visiting journalists from the Asia News Network (ANN).

The ANN, of which The Straits Times is a founding member, allows the 22 Asian member-newspapers to swop news stories, photographs and videos to promote reporting on Asian issues through Asian eyes.

Manila was Mr Hagel's last stop in a week-long tour of South-east Asia that included Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei.

The Philippines is growing closer to the US while ties with China touched a new low after Beijing on Thursday withdrew an invitation for Mr Aquino to visit China next Tuesday. This was because Manila has refused to budge from seeking a ruling from the United Nations on their territorial disputes, news reports here yesterday said. Beijing said on Thursday that it did not invite Mr Aquino to visit.

China and the Philippines have competing claims over some areas of the resource-rich South China Sea which contains vital sea lanes.

In his remarks to ANN journalists, Mr Aquino described ties between the Philippines and the US as "very robust".

"We have performed as allies. We have no complaints as far as their sharing of resources, intelligence, knowledge and material is concerned. We have confidence that we will proceed from strength to strength with this particular alliance."

A 2002 agreement allows several hundred US troops to engage in joint counter-terrorism training operations in the southern Philippines which has been a staging ground for Al-Qaeda-linked radicals. But the number of troops and the duration of their stay are limited under the Visiting Forces Agreement.

This is set to change with a framework agreement - currently under negotiation in Washington - that would allow an increased rotational presence of US troops, ships and planes to operate in Philippine military bases and waters.

No numbers or operational details have yet been disclosed, but more intensive military ties with the US will help the Philippines better equip, modernise and train its armed forces.