Philippines, US to sign defence pact

MANILA - The Philippines said it would sign an agreement on Monday with the United States to allow a greater US military presence on its territory, giving it a security boost amid a bitter territorial dispute with China.

A statement from the Department of National Defense on Sunday said the signing would take place in Manila on Monday morning, a few hours before US President Barack Obama is due to arrive for a two-day visit.

US officials in Malaysia travelling with Obama confirmed the agreement would be signed between the long-time allies, which are already bound by a pact to come to each other's aid if attacked.

Evan Medeiros, senior director for Asian Affairs on the National Security Council, said the deal was a "skeletal and muscular" framework that would allow the two sides to discuss rotations of US troops, naval visits and training exercises.

He said the deal was "the most significant agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades".

Medeiros dismissed the notion that Washington saw the agreement through a prism of containing China's rising military might.

"We are not doing this because of China. We are doing this because we have a longstanding alliance partner. They are interested in stepping up our military-to-military" interaction, he said.

But the Philippines had been pushing for the agreement to help bolster its weak military as it engages in an increasingly tense row with China over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.

The Philippine side did not reveal details of the pact on Sunday.

But Filipino negotiators had previously said it would allow more US troops, aircraft, and ships to pass through the Philippines.

It would also allow the United States to store equipment that could be used to mobilise American forces faster - particularly in cases of natural disasters.

The deal would not allow Washington to establish a permanent base or bring in nuclear weapons, according to the Filipino negotiators.

The Philippines hosted two of the largest overseas US military bases until 1992, when Manila voted to end their lease amid growing anti-US sentiment.

The Philippines in recent years however has been seeking greater US military and diplomatic support in its dispute with China.

China claims most of the South China Sea, even waters close to the Philippines and other countries in the region.

Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan, also have overlapping claims to the sea, which are believed to contain vast deposits of natural gas and oil.

The Philippines has accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive in staking its claims to the sea, including by taking control of a shoal far closer to the Filipino land mass than the Chinese.

Chinese ships also last month tried to block vessels bringing supplies to a Philippine military outpost on a tiny reef claimed by China.

The Philippines has angered China by asking a United Nations tribunal to rule on the validity of China's claims to the sea.

China has refused to take part in the case, and said the Philippines' move had "seriously damaged" bilateral ties.