MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is considering a U.S. proposal to deploy surveillance aircraft on a temporary, rotating basis to enhance its ability to guard disputed areas in the South China Sea, the Philippine defense minister said on Friday.
Ongoing talks in Washington on security ties between the two allies include plans to deploy more littoral combat ships and spy aircraft, said Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.
An expanded U.S. military presence in the region should raise the Philippines’ capability to deter border intrusions, he said.
“I would rather look at it from the positive point of view that there would be stability in the region, that we would have enough deterrent,” Gazmin told reporters.
“Without a deterrent force, we can be easily pushed around, our territories will be violated. Now that we have a good neighbor on the block, we can no longer be bullied,” he said, referring to the United States.
U.S. and Philippine officials are discussing the expansion of military cooperation as the Philippines grapples with the growing assertiveness of China.
The talks with the Philippines, a U.S. ally which voted to remove huge American naval and air bases 20 years ago, follow Washington’s announcement of plans to set up a Marine base in northern Australia and possibly station warships in Singapore.
The Obama administration describes the moves as part of a “pivot” toward economically dynamic Asia designed to reassure allies who felt neglected during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
But China sees the deployments as part of a broader U.S. attempt to encircle it as it grows into a major power.
The South China Sea could be a flash point.
China claims the entire sea, while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all have claims to parts of the area believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
Gazmin confirmed a U.S. offer to deploy surveillance aircraft in the Philippines but he said there was no plan for any new U.S. bases. The Philippines has a constitutional ban on foreign military bases on its soil.
Gazmin said there would be more exercises with U.S. forces and a rotating presence through port visits for exercises, repairs and resupply.
Since 2002, about 600 U.S. commandos have been stationed in the south of the Philippines to help train and advise Philippine
troops in fighting a small Islamist militant group with ties to al Qaeda.
A Philippine military source told Reuters the head of the U.S. Pacific Command had proposed last August the deployment of P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft.
More talks are due in Washington in March.
Left-wing Philippine groups are planning to hold protests outside the U.S. embassy in Manila on Saturday to denounce what they describe as the “treacherous” negotiations with the United States.
“They say that they will not bring back the U.S. bases but the proposal aims for virtual basing just the same,” Renato Reyes, secretary-general of left-wing Bayan (Nation) group, said in a statement.
The Philippines hosted major U.S. military facilities with tens of thousands of airmen and sailors for nearly a century until 1992 when U.S. forces pulled out after a vote in the Philippine Senate to terminate the bases treaty.
In 1998, the Philippines and the United States signed a Visiting Forces Agreement that allows U.S. troops to visit for exercises and rest and recreation.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda also said the talks would not include the creation of any new U.S. bases.
Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Robert Birsel