WASHINGTON – The United States says it shares a common interest with the Philippines in protecting freedom of navigation in the South China Sea but is not seeking to re-establish a military base on the territory of its Southeast Asian treaty ally.
Despite impending budget cuts, the U.S. has signaled its intent to reinforce its presence in the Asia-Pacific, where there is some trepidation over China's rising military capabilities. In recent months it has announced plans to station troops in Australia and dock Navy ships in Singapore. That has fueled speculation the U.S. could seek to re-establish the permanent military presence it had in the Philippines until the early 1990s.
As senior diplomats and defense officials from the Philippines and the U.S. began two days of annual strategic talks in Washington on Thursday, both sides said the focus was on intensifying military cooperation in other ways, such as more joint exercises.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. is interested in increasing training and cooperation in areas including search and rescue, freedom of navigation, countering terror and countering piracy.
"The idea that we are looking to establish U.S. bases or permanently station U.S. forces in the Philippines, or anywhere else in Southeast Asia, as part of a China containment strategy is patently false," said Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokeswoman.
The Philippines has turned to Washington for military hardware after accusing Chinese ships last year of repeatedly intruding into areas it claims in the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands and disrupting oil exploration in its territorial waters.
The U.S. says it has a national interest in peaceful resolution of the territorial conflicts and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea — where Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims. The waters are also home to some of the world's busiest shipping lanes.
"Certainly freedom of navigation in the South China Sea is something we share an interest in and something that we are interested in protecting together," Nuland told a news conference.
Earlier, in Manila, Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said any additional joint military activity would conform with the 1999 agreement that allows U.S. ship and aircraft to visit and resupply, and for joint military exercises in the Philippines.
The Philippine Senate voted in 1991 to close major U.S. military bases in the country, but since 2002 hundreds of U.S. troops have been training and arming Filipino soldiers fighting al-Qaida-linked militants in a Muslim-majority region of the southern Philippines.
The talks in Washington involve the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, Kurt Campbell, and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy. Their Philippine counterparts are Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio and Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino.
During the talks, the Philippines will discuss requests for an additional U.S. Coast Guard cutter, a squadron of F-16 fighter jets and other weapons the Philippines needs to bolster its territorial defense, Philippine defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said.
Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report from Manila.