US pledges Philippines support on Aquino visit

The United States pledged Thursday to help the Philippines step up its defenses in the face of a rising China as it welcomes President Benigno Aquino, seen by US officials as a promising partner.

President Barack Obama will meet Friday at the White House with Aquino, who has raised the profile of the Philippines in Washington through his pledges to tackle corruption and to boost the military relationship with the United States.

Top US military officer General Martin Dempsey, who met Aquino on Monday in Manila, said that he spoke about expanding cooperation with the former US colony beyond recent efforts focused on fighting Islamic insurgents.

The Philippines "has been inward-focused on its internal terrorism and insurgent issues for some time -- for decades really -- and so have a very limited capability to project power or to influence activities around it," said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"We think that they need some of that, particularly in maritime security," Dempsey told reporters in Washington.

The United States has already been helping to upgrade the notoriously antiquated Philippine military and Aquino has agreed to let a greater number of US troops rotate -- but not set up bases -- in the archipelago.

An Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the two leaders on Friday would review defense ties and also "talk about the work ahead in broadening cooperation."

The cooperation comes as the Philippines -- a US treaty ally -- sees particularly tense relations with China, which has butted heads with a number of its neighbors in recent years over territorial disputes in strategic waters.

Friction escalated in April when Chinese and Philippine vessels approached the Scarborough Shoal, which lies near the main Philippine island of Luzon. Manila says the rock formation falls within its exclusive economic zone, but China claims the shoal along with nearly all of the South China Sea.

Dempsey said he spoke with Aquino about the need to "ensure freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea.

Dempsey said that he and Aquino did not discuss the disputes in themselves but "we certainly called on all claimants to resolve these issues through existing international fora and without coercion."

The Obama administration has pledged a growing focus on Asia, with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announcing last week that the United States would shift the majority of its naval fleet to the Pacific by 2020.

China has voiced uneasiness about the Obama administration's effort in Asia, with some Chinese scholars suspecting that a declining United States is trying to hold back a rising Beijing.

Dempsey denied any such effort and, in line with frequent comments by US officials, said that the US military brought stability to Asia.

"I (have) assured anyone that chose to ask me the question -- our strategy and rebalancing to the Pacific is not intended to contain China," Dempsey said.

Obama also plans to discuss trade with Aquino, including measures the Philippines would need to take for eventual participation in talks on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an emerging trade pact, an official said.

Ernie Bower, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he expected strong US support for the Philippines on the South China Sea.

But he said that an emphasis on trade during Aquino's visit could serve as a balance after concerns in the region that the United States has focused too much on the military side of its efforts in Asia.

"The United States is very bullish on Aquino. He's got the economy cranking and he wants to step forward on the political/military side," Bower said.

The president, son of democracy heroine Corazon Aquino, recently won a high-profile battle in his campaign against corruption with the sacking of the country's top judge.

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