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Manila, Washington begin talks to increase U.S. troop rotations

U.S. soldiers ride on an all terrain vehicle (ATV) after arriving at the 103rd Army Brigade headquarters near Isabela town on Basilan island
U.S. soldiers ride on an all terrain vehicle (ATV) after arriving at the 103rd Army Brigade headquarters near Isabela town on Basilan island

By Manuel Mogato

MANILA (Reuters) - The United States and the Philippines begin formal negotiations this week to increase rotational presence of U.S. forces in the former U.S. colony, deploying aircraft, ships, supplies and troops for humanitarian and maritime security operations.

The widening military cooperation, that includes the use of local bases for temporary deployment, signals rapidly warming security relations between the allies as the Philippines looks to the United States to help counter a newly assertive China.

"We stand ready to tap every resource, to call on every alliance to do what is necessary to defend what is ours, to secure our nation and to keep our people safe," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosatio told a news conference at the main army base in Manila.

Del Rosario said the security framework agreement would improve maritime security while the military builds up its own capability for territorial defense.

The talks coincide with a resurgence of U.S. warships, planes and personnel in the region as Washington turns its attention to China and shifts its foreign, economic and security policy towards Asia.

Friction between China and the Philippines, and other countries in the region, over disputed territories in the oil and gas rich sea has surged since last year due to several naval stand-offs and fraying diplomatic efforts to forge a regional agreement on maritime conduct.

REFASHIONED ALLIANCE

Actual negotiations for a new agreement begin on Wednesday in Manila and both sides hope to conclude talks this year, or after four rounds of discussions, Carlos Sorreta, head of the American desk at the foreign ministry, said.

"It's not a basing agreement," Sorreta, spokesman for the four-member negotiating team, told a news conference.

The Philippines kicked out U.S. military bases in 1992 and years later allowed the return of American troops for training and joint exercises. The new deal will expand these activities.

The allies have been in talks since 2011, even before President Barack Obama announced his administration's "pivot to Asia" policy as Washington withdraws from Iraq and Afghanistan.

"These negotiations will lead to incremental security benefits and cooperation rather than a fundamental shift in the regional military balance of power," Patrick Cronin, of the U.S-based Center for a New American Security, told Reuters. "These talks are an important symbol of a refashioned alliance."

Cronin said the upgrading of the alliance "will serve the interests of both nations and the region", adding the pre-positioned equipment would improve readiness to deal with natural disasters and other contingencies.

Left-wing activists criticized the Aquino government for allowing a de facto basing agreement with the Americans. "The Philippines will be one giant weapons depot for U.S. forces," said Renato Reyes of Bayan (Nation), an umbrella organization of anti-U.S. activist groups.

Philippine officials said the new military agreement did not need any approval from lawmakers, but the negotiating team promised to brief Congress and the press at the end of every round of talks.

Sorreta insisted the new deal would not give U.S. forces exclusive use of local facilities or a permanent presence.

"We are engaging in this exercise of negotiations not to please the United States, but in pursuit of our own interests," said Carlos Sorreta, foreign affairs assistant secretary for American affairs. "We are certainly for peace, but we are not for appeasement."

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie)

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