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Philippines boosts defense ties to counter China on sea disputes

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is boosting military ties with the United States and Japan as it seeks to counter China’s increased presence in disputed waters in the fish and gas-rich South China Sea.
President Benigno Aquino’s government is crafting an agreement with the US giving its military access to Subic Bay, Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at a briefing in Manila Thursday. Gazmin and Itsunori Onodera, his Japanese counterpart, also agreed at a meeting Thursday to boost defense cooperation, Japan’s Ministry of Defense said in a statement.
The deals come amid tensions in the waters, which are beset by competing territorial claims from countries including the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Vietnam. Countries have struggled to agree on rules for operating in the seas, raising the risk of confrontation as China’s military strength grows.
Vietnam and the Philippines have rejected China’s claims in the waters as a basis for joint development of oil and gas reserves. Speaking at a briefing Thursday, China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called on the Philippines to work with other countries in the region and play a positive role in regional stability.
“If and when there is an agreement on access, there will be equipment coming in from the US,” Gazmin said, without giving further detail. Military bases won’t be built in Subic, the former site of an American naval base, and the deal won’t violate the Philippine constitution, he said. Subic Bay is the site of a former US naval base in Zambales province north of Manila, which includes the Scarborough Shoal area disputed with China.
The Philippine Senate in 1991 rejected a treaty that would have extended the lease for US military bases in the provinces of Zambales and Pampanga during the administration of the late President Corazon Aquino. It later ratified a visiting forces agreement allowing the US to keep control of American soldiers facing criminal charges in the Philippines.
“Given how weak we are militarily, we have to depend on other countries,” Clarita Carlos, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines, said by phone. “This telegraphs to China that they cannot continue with the provocations.”
The Philippines asked the United Nations in January to rule on its dispute with China, which moved to take control of the Scarborough Shoal a year after a standoff between Philippine and Chinese ships. The shoal is about three times closer to the Philippines than China, the Philippines said in an arbitration note.
Sea cooperation with the Philippines will include port calls by the latter and reciprocal visits by their navy chiefs, Japan’s defense ministry said.
Both agreed to cooperate on the “defense of remote islands” and “protection of maritime interests,” Onodera told reporters in Manila after meeting with Gazmin. Disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea should be resolved “based on the rule of law” and not by force, he said.
The ministers agreed on the importance of the US presence, Onodera said, adding the two nations will work to support the US’ strategic shift toward Asia.
“We have regular exercises with the Americans and we have not talked about specific equipment yet, but we do welcome the inclusion of new technology, very new to us, so this is part of our education,” Gazmin said.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe may go to countries including the Philippines and Malaysia after Japan’s upper house election which is scheduled on July 21, Kyodo News said, citing an unidentified government official. Abe aims to boost cooperation with countries that are also in territorial disputes with China, the news agency said on June 24.