Philippines open troops Talks on Expanding Washington Access to Military Bases

Philippine officials said it is seeking fresh talks with the United States on expanding U.S. access to its military bases, as tensions with China rise over competing territorial claims in the South China Sea and the West Philippines Sea.

In a joint letter to Philippine lawmakers, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the talks will focus on "a possible framework agreement" for "an increased [U.S.] rotational presence." the secretaries of national defense and foreign affairs said that allowing American troops to have an "increased rotational presence" will help the country attain a "minimum credible defense" to guard its territory while it struggles to modernize its own military, one of Asia's weakest.

A larger American presence would also mean more resources and training for responding to disasters in a nation often battered by typhoons and earthquakes, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in their letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press on Thursday.

U.S. officials had not confirmed any talks, but said a framework agreement would increase opportunities for joint military training and exercises that could include other regional partners.

Manila's push to bolster its defenses comes as China presses maritime claims to most of the mineral and energy-rich South China Sea and West Philippine Sea. For their part, the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei are seeking to defend their sea borders against what those governments see as Chinese naval and fishing intrusions.

The realignment of American forces in the Asia-Pacific also involves the deployment of up to 2,500 U.S. Marines in northern Australia and the stationing of U.S. combat vessels in Singapore.

Gazmin has said that additional American troops would only be allowed to have access to the country's existing military bases under terms the Philippines would negotiate with the U.S. government. The two sides would have to negotiate the length of any agreement allowing more U.S. troops, planes, ships and other equipment.

Under the current Visiting Forces Agreement, hundreds of American counterterrorism troops have been allowed to stay in the Philippines' volatile southern Mindanao region since 2002 to train Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants and a handful of foreign terrorist suspects from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Gazmin and del Rosario stressed in their letter the importance of the Philippines' decades-old military alliance with the United States, saying "this relationship is useful not only in our diplomacy but also in enhancing our capabilities at the vital task of territorial defense."

The Philippines has reached out to the United States for help in modernizing its outdated fleet of warships and planes and in training its troops amid renewed tensions over the long-running territorial disputes with China.

President Benigno Aquino III said last month that foreign troops, if given access to local military camps, would not become a "permanent fixture." He stressed that while such an arrangement would allow the country to better prepare for any security contingency, the Philippines as a matter of policy renounces war and chooses diplomacy to resolve territorial claims.

Confrontations involving Chinese patrol ships and vessels from the Philippines and Vietnam over disputed islands and reefs have raised tensions in the potentially oil- and gas-rich waters.

China claims much of the South China Sea on historical grounds. The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan have rejected Beijing's massive claims, sparking fears the disputes might turn violent and set off an armed conflict.

Confidential Philippine military surveillance reports seen by the AP said that 61 Chinese vessels were sighted in Manila-claimed areas of the disputed Spratly Islands from July 4 to 10. China has also turned Mischief Reef, which it occupied in 1995 amid protests from Manila, into a logistical base to help Chinese ships better patrol the seas.

China has also erected two concrete posts at the narrow entrance of a vast lagoon to erect a rope barrier and better control entry into Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing ground which came under Beijing's control after Philippine ships backed off from a tense face-off last year.

Earlier this week, the Philippines took formal possession of a refurbished former U.S. Coast Guard cutter obtained under a bilateral military alliance with Washington. The vessel joins another former U.S. cutter recommissioned by the Philippines in 2011.

Vietnam has also welcomed closer military ties with the United States, and has allowed U.S. Navy supply ships to dock for repairs and maintenance in recent years.

Rumors swirled this week in official Vietnamese media that the United States was considering suspending a ban on the export of lethal weapons to the Hanoi government.

However, there has been no official confirmation of those deliberations. Analysts have cautioned against expecting any such concessions from Washington without evidence of significant improvement in Vietnam's human rights record.

With report from Associated Press  and  Voice of America

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