Philippines offers US use of bases

Philippines offers US use of bases

The Philippines has agreed to allow the United States access to the country's military bases under a new security deal being negotiated by the two allies, amid mounting concern over China's increasing assertiveness in the disputed waters of the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).

The offer was made during a sixth round of talks held in Washington last week on an accord that will allow increased US military presence in the country, officials said on Friday.

The two sides hope to finalize terms for an "Agreement on Enhanced Defence Cooperation" before US President Barack Obama embarks on a visit to Asia, including the Philippines, next month.

Philippine officials said negotiators hurdled a major obstacle in the negotiations at the Washington talks last week.

Defence Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino, the head of the Philippine panel, said the US negotiators have agreed that Philippine authorities can have access to US facilities set up inside local military bases to show Philippine control over these areas, a sensitive issue concerning sovereignty among Filipinos.

Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin has said that disagreements over the issue of access and control had been delaying the negotiations on the new accord.

"Access has always been a primordial concern" for the government, Batino said, adding that the deal was "80 per cent" done.

"It is safe to say that there will be language that will provide that the Philippine authorities would have access to the areas provided to the US armed forces," he told a news conference on Friday.

"As a concept, access is assured, being within Philippine military bases, and also the right of the base commander to have access to specific areas shared with them has already been agreed in principle by both panels," said Ambassador Eduardo Malaya, a member of the Philippine panel.

China factor

The Philippines is seeking a stronger defence cooperation with the US as its territorial dispute with China over areas in the South China Sea intensifies.

The United States plans to "rebalance" its forces in the Asia-Pacific region, and has similar arrangements with Australia and Singapore, as part of its strategy to counter China.

Negotiations began last August on an agreement that would allow larger numbers of US troops to have temporary access to Philippine military camps and bring in aircraft, ships and humanitarian equipment.

Hundreds of US troops have already been deployed in the country's south to provide counterterrorism training to Filipino soldiers since 2002.

US military access in the Philippines is currently limited to annual joint exercises and port visits.

Nearly a century of US military presence in the Philippines ended in 1992 when the United States closed its bases, including what were then among the largest overseas US military facilities. The Philippine Senate voted a year earlier not to renew the lease on the bases.

While that ended a special relationship going back 40 years between the United States and its former colony which won its independence in 1946, an alliance has endured.

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