MANILA (Reuters) - U.S. and Philippine officials are expected to agree on an increase in the number of U.S. military ships, aircraft and troops rotating through the Philippines, Filipino officials said, as tensions simmer with China over its maritime claims.
Though he made no direct reference to the territorial disputes, new Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping urged his military to prepare for a struggle. He made the comments during his visit to a South China Sea fleet ship in southern Guangdong province, but did not name any potential aggressor.
Senior U.S. and Philippine officials met on Wednesday in Manila to discuss strengthening security and economic ties at a time of growing tension over China’s aggressive sovereignty claims over vast stretches of the disputed South China Sea.
Philippine defense and diplomatic officials said they expected to see more U.S. ships, aircraft and troops for training exercises and disaster and relief operations.
“What we are discussing right now is increasing the rotational presence of U.S. forces,” Carlos Sorreta, the foreign ministry’s Assistant Secretary for American Affairs, told reporters. A five-year joint U.S.-Philippine military exercise plan would be approved this week, he added.
The size of the increase in the U.S. military assets in the Philippines, a former U.S. colony, was unclear.
Pio Lorenzo Batino, Philippine deputy defence minister, said there were “substantial discussions” on a possible new framework allowing Washington to put equipment in the Southeast Asian state.
“There has been no discussion yet on specifics ... (these are) policy consultations and the specifics would be determined by the technical working groups,” he told a news conference, saying the new framework was discussed in the context of increasing rotational presence.
U.S. Assistant Sevretary of State Kurt Campbell said the two allies’ relationship was “in a renaissance”.
The discussions come as the Philippines, Australia and other parts of the region have seen a resurgence of U.S. warships, planes and personnel under Washington’s so-called “pivot” in foreign, economic and security policy towards Asia announced last year.
Wary of Washington’s intentions, China is building up its own military. Its claims over most of the South China Sea have set it directly against U.S. allies Vietnam and the Philippines, while Brunei, Taiwan and Malaysia also claim parts of the mineral-rich waters.
Xi, who assumed the role of military chief about a month ago, called on the 2.3-million-strong People’s Liberation Army to “push forward preparations for a military struggle”, state news agency Xinhua said.
Xi, speaking during a three-day inspection of the PLA’s Guangzhou base starting last Saturday, did not say against whom the struggle might be fought.
His remarks echo those he made a week ago and are a common refrain by Chinese leaders. Xi replaced President Hu Jintao as chairman of the Central Military Commission on November 15.
Xi also said the army should “modernize” for combat readiness, but gave no specific details.
U.S. and Philippine officials say there is no plan to revive permanent U.S. military bases in the Philippines - the last ones were closed in 1992 - and that the increased presence would help provide relief during disasters such as a typhoon last week that killed more than 700 people.
“The increase rotation presence is in areas where we have been traditionally exercising,” said Sorreta. “There are other areas for example where we have been experiencing more disasters. So we might be expanding exercises there.”
One U.S. official said Washington was not ready to wade directly into the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and instead would focus on strengthening security ties with long-standing allies such as the Philippines.
“I don’t think you’ll see any real movement on the South China Sea,” the U.S. official said.
“I’m sure it will come up, but we aren’t trying to step in and ‘solve’ that issue. We really want the solution to be done by the claimants themselves and are hoping the Code of Conduct discussions move forward,” said the official, referring to a Code of Conduct aimed at easing the risk of naval flashpoints.
Sorreta told Reuters the Philippines also favored an increased deployment of U.S. aircraft and ships “so we can make use of them when the need arises”, citing last week’s typhoon. He said they would also welcome more U.S. humanitarian supplies.
Additional Reporting By Paul Eckert in Washington and Sui-Lee Wee in Beijing; Editing by Jason Szep and Jonathan Thatcher