* Visit shores up historic US-Philippines alliance
* Aquino has eye on territorial dispute with China
* U.S. helps Manila's defense build-up, seeks no bases
By Paul Eckert
WASHINGTON, June 7 Philippines President Benigno
Aquino arrived in the United States on Wednesday for a visit
that will highlight the Southeast Asian archipelago's growing
importance in U.S. strategic thinking, as the White House
"pivots" to Asia and both countries worry about China's
Aquino, well-regarded by the U.S. government, not least for
his battles against corruption, is being accorded a White House
meeting on Friday with President Barack Obama.
That meeting comes as Washington has begun helping Manila
beef up its modest military capacities in the face of a
confrontation with China over contested South China Sea reefs.
The United States, colonial ruler of the Philippines from
1898-1946 and a treaty ally with Manila since 1951, has embraced
the Philippines as part of a policy that makes the Asia-Pacific
region the center of U.S. security and economic strategy.
"The meeting between President Aquino and President Obama
will lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic
partnership between the Philippines and the United States," said
Jose Cuisia, the Philippines ambassador in Washington.
Aquino will also meet senior U.S. lawmakers for "discussions
on our bilateral economic and defense cooperation, the shift in
the focus of the United States toward the Asia-Pacific and ways
to revitalize our alliance," the envoy said in a statement.
Washington's "rebalancing" of forces to the Asia-Pacific
region, a post-Cold War strategy two decades in the making, has
accelerated under the Obama administration as a response to
China's rapid military modernization and growing assertiveness
in that region.
A U.S. official said Washington saw Aquino as a leader who
is "trying to do the right thing" to tackle the corruption,
cronyism and red tape that have held back the economy of his
nation of 93 million people.
But the United States is moving cautiously in solidifying
defense ties with Manila. The Philippines evicted the U.S.
military from Naval Station Subic Bay in 1992, and nationalist
sentiment remains high.
NO NEW U.S. BASES
Even as it fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United
States kept more than 70,000 troops in a network of military
bases in Japan and South Korea that date back to the 1950s.
The Obama policy has focused on Southeast Asia and crafting
flexible arrangements with other allies in Asia, Australia and
the Philippines, and ship visits to Singapore and Vietnam.
No new U.S. bases are envisioned under this scheme, although
2,500 U.S. troops will rotate through and train in Darwin,
Australia. Any new arrangements with the Philippines would be
smaller than the Australian program, U.S. officials say.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last weekend the
Pentagon will reposition its naval fleet so 60 percent of its
battleships are in the Asia-Pacific region by the end of the
decade, up from about 50 percent now. The move drew a pledge
from China's People's Liberation Army to increase its vigilance.
In upgrading its military capability to protect its
interests in disputed areas of the South China Sea, Manila has
been looking to Washington for ships, aircraft and surveillance
and equipment to build a credible defense posture.
After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks in
late April, the Obama administration pledged to increase its
annual foreign military sales program to the Philippines to $30
million, about three times the level of the 2011 program.
"We've been working with the Philippines on military
modernization for 12 or 13 years, very intensively," said Walter
Lohman, a Southeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, a
conservative Washington think tank.
"The only thing that has changed is the urgency of this and
the seriousness the Philippines has shown under the Aquino
administration," he said.
US BALANCING ACT
Manila's new urgency stems from a months-long showdown with
China at the Scarborough Shoal, a horse-shoe shaped reef near
the Philippines in waters both countries claim.
The United States is formally neutral on South China Sea
territorial issues, complex disputes which also pit China
against Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations.
Washington, however, has promoted multilateral diplomacy to
handle the disputes - challenging China's insistence on
bilateral talks with its weaker neighbors.
"The United States has the dilemma of balancing the many,
many vital interests we have in our relations with China, with
our interests in Southeast Asia and it really is a balancing
act," said Southeast Asia security expert Don Weatherbee.
Weatherbee, emeritus professor at the University of South
Carolina, said that while Manila could not expect a "blank
check" from Washington in a territorial conflict with Beijing,
U.S. credibility would face scrutiny.
"It's not just a question of U.S.-Philippines relations.
It's a question of the American security guarantee in East Asia
and the Asia-Pacific and what is actually meant by the word
guarantee," he said.
This week's meetings in Washington will also take up the
prospect of the Philippines joining the Trans-Pacific
Partnership, a free trade pact in the Asia Pacific region with
nine members that is also examining applications by Japan,
Canada and Mexico.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn and Manuel Mogato in
Manila and David Alexander in Singapore; editing by Todd