MANILA - An agreement on U.S.-Philippine defense cooperation, expected to be signed this month during a visit by President Barack Obama, will be a clear sign of a U.S. "rebalance" to Asia despite U.S. preoccupations elsewhere, the Philippines' top diplomat said.
The deal will enable the sharing of Philippine bases, an increase in the rotation through the Philippines of U.S. ships, aircraft and troops, and will reassure U.S. allies of support against a rising China.
"There is full resolve on the part of the U.S. to fulfil their commitments on this Asia rebalancing, not only in terms of defensive security but also in terms of enhancing economic cooperation," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario told Reuters in an interview late on Monday.
"This enhanced defence cooperation is a clear manifestation of that," he said, days before the eighth and final round of talks on the pact between the old allies.
"The situation in the Middle East, the situation in Ukraine - this has been of some distraction in terms of their focus on doing this. But I believe that the resolve is very strong in terms of fulfilling their rebalance to Asia."
The deal will boost the Philippines' surveillance capabilities in the disputed South China Sea, del Rosario said, as it strives to keep in check an increasingly assertive China.
Even without the agreement, the Philippine military is getting more support from the United States. This year, the Philippines will get $50 million under U.S. foreign military financing, the largest amount in more than a decade, and $40 million from a U.S. global security contingency fund.
The funding will be used strictly to boost naval capability, with the Philippines possibly getting a third Hamilton-class high endurance cutter, del Rosario said.
The first two Hamiltons that the Philippines got from the United States in the last three years are the largest and most modern warships in the Philippine navy.
"The South China Sea can be very rough, and smaller ships ... cannot manage the South China Sea in periods that are not summer, very few of our ships can withstand the waves there," del Rosario said.
"CENTER OF ATTRACTION"
Military sources have told Reuters the United States plans to rotate to Philippine bases a squadron of fighters, P3C-Orion long-range maritime surveillance aircraft, and a littoral combat ship after the pact is signed.
The United States has also promised to help install coastal radars to help the Philippines watch it its maritime borders.
Apart from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also lay claim to South China Sea, or at least parts of it. The sea provides about 10 percent of the global fish catch, carries at least $5 trillion in ship-borne trade a year and is believed to be rich in energy resources.
China claims virtually the entire sea and has sought to resolve disputes with other claimants on a bilateral basis.
In the face of rising tension, Manila has filed an arbitration case, seeking a ruling to confirm its right to exploit the waters in its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone as allowed under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.
China has dismissed the case but del Rosario said it was aimed at clarifying everyone's entitlements and ensuring freedom of navigation.
"Everyone is watching that now. I think the Philippines has become the center of attraction in terms of how this is going to pan out," he said.