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.
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.
No US bases
The Philippine negotiators did not say whether there will be any limit to the number of US troops or their length of stay. Batino, however, said any US military facility will not be "a base within a base."
The Constitution disallows foreign military bases unless under a treaty approved by the Philippine Senate. Opponents of the new accord say it is a way to permanently station US troops in the country to circumvent the constitutional prohibition on foreign bases.
Batino said the agreement would be legally binding but would not require ratification by the Senate, which could delay the actual US deployment.
Under the draft accord, the Philippines will allow US forces joint use of facilities in several military bases like those in Manila, Clark, Palawan, Cebu, Nueva Ecija and La Union, said a military official with knowledge of the negotiations.
"We are only offering US military forces access to fewer military bases," said Malaya.
The Philippines refused a request for use of civilian airfields and ports, like Subic Freeport Bay, Laoag and Davao international airports, according to the military official.
Philippine and US negotiators are set to hold a seventh round of talks in Manila at the end of the month.
Malaya said specifics such as "who would secure what area" would still have to be hammered out.
He said that the Philippines has maintained its position that the agreement's duration "would be shorter than 20 years."
The officials declined to set an April deadline for the talks, citing the need to ensure that language was in line with Philippine laws and yielded the maximum benefits for the hosts.
"If the negotiations are successfully concluded and that happens before the arrival of President Obama, then we will be happy of course," the officials said.
US presence a deterrent
The Philippines sees hosting more US forces as an important part of its strategy to counter an increasingly assertive China in an escalating dispute over rival claims to the South China Sea, and to help provide humanitarian assistance during natural disasters.
"It will not stop China from its bullying tactics, but it will become more cautious and might exercise self-restraint due to the US presence," said Rommel Banlaoi, an analyst at the Philippine Institute of Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
"The Philippines will also benefit from more exercises and more assistance from the US and it will elevate the Philippines to a major non-Nato ally in the Pacific," he said.
Friction between China and the Philippines and other states in the region over disputed territories in the South China Sea has increased since last year despite diplomatic efforts to forge an agreement on maritime conduct.
The dispute revolves round competing claims over the Spratlys, a group of 250 uninhabitable islets spread over 165,000 square miles, and other groups of shoals and islets that the Philippines claims as part of its territory as they lie well within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Just a working title
On Sunday, three Chinese Coast Guard ships stopped two Filipino civilian vessels from delivering food, water and construction materials to troops based on a ship that was deliberately run aground on reef in the Spratlys, the Ayungin Shoal, in 1999 to reinforce the Philippines' claim.
The Philippines called the Chinese actions "a clear and urgent threat to the rights and interests of the Philippines."
The framework agreement was previously referred to as an "Agreement on Increased Rotational Presence," which Batino said was "just a working title."
The change to "Enhanced Defence Cooperation" as a title just manifests the fluidity of the negotiations because during the constant discussions, "language may be changed from time to time," he said.
"We also believe Enhanced Defence Cooperation captures the essence of the agreement which is to elevate robust cooperation with us to a higher level owing to the shared history between the two militaries and conduct of training activities under the VFA (Visiting forces Agreement) for 15 years. It's just time even for a further enhancement of our cooperation," Batino said.