By Manuel Mogato
MANILA (Reuters) - China is likely to be high on the agenda at top level U.S.-Philippine security talks on Monday as Washington refocuses its foreign policy on Asia and Manila realizes its limits in trying to solve territorial disputes with Beijing alone.
China has maritime spats with several countries in the South China Sea, believed to be rich in oil and gas and crossed by important shipping lanes, and its neighbors fear its growing naval reach in staking claims.
Those disputes are pushing the Philippines to seek closer cooperation with the United States, which in turn has prompted China to warn Washington against getting involved, denouncing last week's U.S.-Philippine military drills as bringing the risk of armed conflict closer.
"I'm sure we need to be diplomatic, but I don't think we should tip-toe around the Chinese on this," said Walter Lohman, director of the Asian Studies Center with the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation think tank.
"...There is nothing new about the U.S. exercising with the Philippines. We shouldn't refrain because the Chinese don't like it. In fact, I expect the (Washington meeting) will come up with some agreement on increasing the frequency and variety of exercises, ship visits. Also expect agreement on hardware, joint use of Philippines' training facilities and bases."
The talks also coincide with a potential new source of tension between Washington and Beijing after blind activist Chen Guangcheng was reported late last week to have sought U.S. protection in the Chinese capital after an audacious escape from 19 months under house arrest.
Manila's moves to strengthen security ties with its former colonial master coincide with the U.S. foreign policy "pivot" towards Asia to concentrate on, among other things, North Korea's nuclear ambitions and China's military buildup.
Twenty years after the Philippines voted to remove American bases, it now wants to give U.S. troops more access to its ports and airfields.
"We enjoy a really close military-to-military relationship with the Philippines and I think certainly coming out of this two plus two, we'll be looking for ways to improve and enhance that relationship," said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain John Kirby, referring to talks between the defence and foreign secretaries, the highest-level security talks yet between the two sides.
"But it is safe to say that ... our relationship with the Philippines is part and parcel of the larger shift to focus on the Asia-Pacific."
A Philippine general familiar with the discussions to be held in Washington said the United States had a list of airfields in the Philippines that it could use for routine deployment of tankers, fighters and transport planes.
"These are not new bases for the Americans, these are still our facilities," said the general who declined to be identified. "They are only asking us if we can share some of our idle space with them."
Kirby said the United States wanted to continue "a rotational and training" relationship. "We're certainly not looking ... for permanent basing there."
This is nevertheless a sensitive area for Philippine President Benigno Aquino, some of whose political advisers are uncomfortable with an expanding U.S. role.
The U.S. plan to use Philippine airports is not new. At the height of U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in the mid-2000s, Manila allowed U.S. military planes to refuel at an airport in northernmost Batanes province, close to Taiwan.
"We don't want them back, they create noise when most of us are already asleep," Budget Secretary Florencio "Butch" Abad said of U.S. transport planes landing at night in Basco airport.
Abad is one of Aquino's closest political advisers. Another political adviser told Reuters Aquino would not allow a de facto basing arrangement.
"That's a violation of our constitution," he said.
Philippine foreign and defence officials, however, will use the Washington talks to try to get U.S. backing on its position in the South China Sea, invoking freedom of navigation.
"I think we would want all nations, including the U.S., to make a judgment as to what is happening there (in the South China Sea) and what the implications are to their own security," Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has said.
A retired Philippine flag officer said Washington, which is shuffling and redeploying its forces around Asia, including in Japan and Australia, wanted to rebuild the "air bridge" between Northeast and Southeast Asia.
"They are trying to plug these holes when they left Clark in 1992," he said, referring to a former U.S. air base in the northern Philippines. "They need airfields more than ports because most of their tactical aircraft are based too far from potential hotspots in Southeast Asia."
Richard Jacobson, of Pacific Strategies and Assessments, cautioned both sides against playing the China card, saying he did not see naval standoffs in the South China Sea as dramatic enough to improve U.S.-Philippines relations.
"It appears more likely that any new strategic partnership will evolve gradually over time," Jacobson told Reuters.
(With Additional Reporting By Paul Eckert and David Alexander in WASHINGTON; Editing by Nick Macfie and Jonathan Thatcher)