(Reuters) - The Philippines is in talks with the U.S. government on expanding its military presence in the southeast Asian country in response to the growing assertiveness of China, the Washington Post reported on Thursday.
In recent months, the United States has announced plans to set up a Marine base in northern Australia and station warships in Singapore, moves seen in China as a part of a broader U.S. attempt to encircle it as it grows into a major power.
The newspaper said that negotiations were in the early stages but quoted officials from both governments as saying they were favorably inclined towards a deal.
It said more talks were scheduled for Thursday and Friday in Washington before higher-level meetings in March.
"We can point to other countries: Australia, Japan, Singapore," the newspaper quoted a senior Philippine official as saying.
"We're not the only one doing this, and for good reason. We all want to see a peaceful and stable region. Nobody wants to have to face China or confront China."
A Philippine defense department spokesman, however, told Reuters he was not aware of any plans to deploy U.S. troops or ships in the country, but the two sides were in talks to boost joint exercises that their militaries hold each year.
"What is on the table is a request for more frequent exercises. The bottom line is frequency. These training and exercises will benefit our troops in terms of new knowledge, learning new techniques to fight terrorism and anti-piracy as well as on how to operate new equipment," Peter Paul Galvez said.
The Philippines used to host major U.S. military bases until about 20 years ago.
More recently, its relations with China have been strained by conflicting claims to islands in the South China Sea -- an issue which has also tested China's ties with other countries in the region.
Among the options under consideration are operating Navy ships from the Philippines, deploying troops on a rotational basis and staging more frequent joint exercises, the Post said.
Officials in the Philippines were quoted as saying their priority is to strengthen maritime defenses, especially near the South China Sea. They indicated a willingness to host U.S. ships and surveillance aircraft.
A commander in the western Philippine naval forces told Reuters that a greater U.S. presence in the region, especially in the disputed waters of South China, would help boost security.
"The presence of U.S. Navy in Philippine waters could be an effective deterrent and increase our domain awareness in the disputed areas," he said.
(Writing by Jonathan Thatcher; Additional reporting by Manny Mogato; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)