MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines is offering the United States greater access to its airfields and may open new areas for soldiers to use, as the Pacific country seeks stronger military ties with its closest ally, moves likely to further raise tensions with China.
In exchange for opening its bases, the Philippines will ask Washington for more military equipment and training, including a another Hamilton-class warship and possibly a squadron of old F-16 jet fighters, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told Reuters on Thursday.
“As part of building up our minimum credible defense posture, we would like the Americans to come more often,” del Rosario said in an interview at his office near Manila Bay.
Manila favors more frequent joint military drills, he said. One such exercise, which will be staged on western island Palawan for the first time, is scheduled for April 16.
“Let’s have these joint training exercises more frequently and on a bigger scale. As many times as we can, in different places if we can, that’s the objective of the exercise,” del Rosario said, the first official confirmation of talks between the countries on increasing the U.S. military presence in the Philippines.
Disputes in the South China Sea are Southeast Asia’s biggest security concern after a series of naval clashes over the vast region believed to be rich in energy reserves.
Chinese navy ships threatened to ram a Philippine research vessel last March, prompting Manila to scramble planes and ships to the area. After that, Philippine President Benigno Aquino started building closer ties with Washington, which has signaled a military “pivot” back to Asia.
Del Rosario said the possible purchase of F-16s and the request for a third cutter for the coast guard would be among issues up for discussion at a meeting between the two sides on April 30 in Washington.
The U.S. is also looking into gaining access, under a “joint use” arrangement, to around half a dozen civilian airfields in the Philippines, where U.S. transports, fighters and spy planes can land for repairs, refueling and temporary deployment.
The talks, between among foreign and defense leaders, will precede a meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Philippine President Benigno Aquino later this year.
In the last 10 years, the Philippines has received about 22 billion pesos ($512.22 million) in U.S. military aid, Del Rosario said.
Washington is Manila’s closest and only strategic security partner, since the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty six years after the Philippines won its independence from the United States.
Del Rosario said he welcomed closer intelligence cooperation in the South China Sea, after the U.S. last year proposed deploying P3C Orion reconnaissance planes to patrol disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“I think any method of cooperation that will provide us additional intelligence in terms of maritime domain awareness is good for us. The more information, the better,” he said.
Australia said on Wednesday it could allow U.S. spy flights to operate from a remote Indian Ocean island.
Manila hopes China will not feel threatened by its increased defense cooperation with Washington.
“We expressed our satisfaction when China was in the process of building up its military, increasing its military budget,” Del Rosario said.
“We expect that China, in the same way, would be happy to be able to see the Philippines trying to, in some measure, build up its own capabilities to be able to protect its own sovereignty.”
The United States deploys about 600 commandos in the southern Philippine. Del Rosario said it was possible there would be an increase in the number of U.S. troops, aircraft and ships visiting the Philippines, but the two sides were not discussing setting up permanent U.S. bases in the country.
Editing by Daniel Magnowski