By David Alexander and Manuel Mogato
WASHINGTON/MANILA (Reuters) - U.S. and Philippine officials are in talks about expanding bilateral military cooperation as the Southeast Asian country grapples with the growing assertiveness of China, officials from the two countries said on Thursday.
Talks with the Philippines, a U.S. ally which voted to remove huge American naval and air bases 20 years ago, follow Washington's announcement of plans to set up a Marine base in northern Australia and possibly station warships in Singapore.
"We are holding a bilateral strategic dialogue, during which we will discuss a broad range of issues, including our cooperation on counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, disaster preparedness, border security, and human rights," said Leslie Hullryde, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
"We'll certainly be discussing with the Philippines, a long-time ally in the region, how our enhanced posture in Asia can be useful to them as we expand our cooperation," she said.
The Obama administration describes the moves as part of a "pivot" toward economically dynamic Asia designed to reassure allies who felt neglected during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but China sees the deployments as part of a broader U.S. attempt to encircle it as it grows into a major power.
Hullryde said "the idea that we are looking to establish U.S. bases or permanently station U.S. forces in the Philippines - or anywhere else in Southeast Asia - as part of a China containment strategy is patently false."
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that negotiations that would lead to a return of U.S. bases to the Philippines were in the early stages. Officials from both governments were quoted as saying they were favorably inclined toward a deal.
But both Washington and Manila describe a more modest agenda for talks on Thursday and Friday, hosted by Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Lavoy.
A Philippine defense department spokesman told Reuters in Manila 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.
Last week a Philippine general said his country and the United States would hold military drills to test their readiness to protect offshore oil and natural gas platforms in the South China Sea.
CHINESE INTRUSIONS WORRY MANILA
The Philippines used to host major U.S. military bases with tens of thousands of airmen and sailors until 1992, but they pulled out after a 1991 vote in the Philippine Senate. Since 2002, U.S. army special forces have trained Filipino troops fighting al Qaeda-linked Islamist militants in the southern Philippines.
Talk of a U.S. "pivot" spawns media hype about a major force build-up in Asia that mistakenly treats American military presence that dates back to World War Two as something novel -- needlessly inciting China, some experts say.
"Compared to the Cold War position that the U.S. had, there's no comparison in terms of boots on the ground and force posture," said James Hardy, a London-based Asia-Pacific specialist at IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, a military publication.
More recently, the Philippines' 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.
After Manila complained about Chinese intrusions into its maritime territory last year, the Pentagon promised the Philippines more access to surveillance data from the South China Sea, a Philippines official told Reuters.
That offer, which resulted in Manila publishing photos of intruding Chinese vessels in an area called Reed Bank, came with a U.S. proposal to deploy to the Philippines several spy planes, the official added.
A commander in the western Philippine naval forces said a greater U.S. presence in the region, especially in the disputed waters of South China, would 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.
China claims the entire South China Sea, while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have conflicting claims over the disputed area believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
The United States has backed the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) call for a multilateral solution to the dispute, which Washington warns could threaten freedom of navigation in the strategically and commercially important waterway.
A research note published by the Eurasia Group political risk consultancy warned that efforts to hedge against the rise of China by the Philippines and Vietnam, which is also moving closer to the United States, could kindle tensions in 2012.
"While a direct confrontation remains unlikely, tensions over territorial disputes increase the risk of a miscalculation by Hanoi or Manila and of an overreaction by Beijing," said the note, published on Thursday.
(Writing by Jonathan Thatcher and Paul Eckert; Additional reporting by Manny Mogato in Manila and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Vicki Allen)