By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - The United States is seeking more access to Philippines ports and airfields to re-fuel and service its warships and planes, diplomatic and military sources said on Thursday, expanding its presence at a time of tension with China in the South China Sea.
But it is not trying to reopen military bases there.
Washington's growing cooperation in the Philippines, a U.S. ally which voted to remove huge American naval and air bases 20 years ago, follows the U.S. announcement last year of plans to set up a Marine base in northern Australia and possibly station warships in Singapore.
It also coincides with diplomatic and military friction in the South China Sea and its oil-rich Spratly Islands, which are subject to disputed claims by China, the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.
Last month, senior Philippine defense and foreign affairs officials met their U.S. counterparts in Washington to discuss ways to increase the number and frequency of joint exercises, training, ship and aircraft visits and other activities.
"It's access, not bases," a foreign affairs department official familiar with the strategic dialogue told Reuters.
"Our talks focus on strengthening cooperation on military and non-military activities, such as disaster response and humanitarian assistance, counter-terrorism, non-proliferation. There were no discussions about new U.S. bases," he said.
These activities would allow the U.S. military more access in the Philippines, stretching its presence beyond local military facilities and training grounds into central Cebu province or to Batanes island near the northern borders with Taiwan.
U.S. ships and aircraft are seeking access for re-supply, re-fueling and repairs, not just for goodwill visits, exercises and training activities, the diplomat said.
The Philippines was ruled by the United States for nearly five decades between the departure of the Spanish and the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and is now one of its foremost allies in Asia, despite expelling the U.S. from its former military bases at Clark and Subic Bay in 1992.
Since 1987, the Philippine constitution has explicitly banned a permanent foreign military presence. But Washington maintains close military ties under a 1951 defense treaty, and its special forces have been helping the Philippine military combat Islamic militants in the south of the country since 2002.
A Filipino diplomat said Washington's expanding presence is allowed under the under a 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement and a 2002 Mutual Logistics Support Agreement.
The issue is likely to be raised during a visit to Manila from Friday by U.S. Assistant Secretary Andrew Shapiro, senior advisor on political-military affairs to Secretary Hillary Clinton.
U.S. MILITARY "HARDWARE"
Apart from training and exercises, the two countries discussed U.S. military assistance, including equipment and data to enhance "domain awareness" in the South China Sea.
A second Hamilton-class cutter will be transferred to the Philippine Navy this year and a possible third second-hand cutter was also discussed, the diplomat added.
"On our side, we're also trying to explore ways on how to access newer U.S. military hardware through innovative financial schemes other than the usual channels," the foreign affairs official said.
Military sources said Manila was studying leasing newer offshore patrol vessels, larger sealift and support vessels and lead-in fighter trainer aircraft.
Last month, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters Manila is also considering a proposal from the United States Pacific Command to deploy P3C-Orion spy planes in the country to help monitor movements and activities in the South China Sea.
The disputed ownership of oil-rich reefs and islands in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in trade sails annually, is one of the biggest security threats in Asia. Beijing says it has historical sovereignty over the South China Sea, superseding claims of other countries.
Tension over the region and the U.S. plans to expand its military operations in the Asia-Pacific, long an issue with China, could well come up in talks when China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jingping visits Washington next week.
China has expressed misgivings about the Obama administration's shift to raise its security role in the region at a time when Beijing is expanding its own military reach.
The Hawaii-based Pacific Command's proposal to deploy spy planes came two months after State and Pentagon officials offered to share surveillance data on the South China Sea during talks with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario in June 2011.
Last year, Del Rosario repeatedly protested against China's activities and intrusions into Philippine maritime territories, including an attempt to ram a survey ship exploring oil and gas in the South China Sea. Manila had accused China's ships of crossing into its maritime borders nearly a dozen times in 2011.
The Philippines has welcomed plans by the United States to shift more attention in the Asia and Pacific region and senior officials said an expanded U.S. military presence could enhance peace and stability.
"For us, it would boost our deterrent capability to stop intrusions into our territories," said the diplomat.
(Editing by Jason Szep and Jonathan Thatcher)