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As territorial dispute with Beijing simmers, Kerry visits Philippines to hammer out U.S. troop deal

Manila to hedge bets against China

AFP-JIJI, AP

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday for a two-day trip that could fast-track a deal on expanding the U.S. military presence as a territorial dispute simmers with China.

The same day, Kerry said the United States will provide the Philippines’ security forces with $40 million in new assistance in part to help the country protect its territorial waters amid rising tensions with China over disputes in the South China Sea.

The money, from a U.S. program known as the Global Security Contingency Fund, will be spent over three years and will be split between improving the Philippines Coast Guard’s maritime security abilities and boosting counterterrorism capacity for the Philippines National Police in the nation’s restive southern islands, where Washington has also backed a decade-long Philippine campaign against al-Qaida-linked local militants.

The new aid is intended to complement a $32.5 million assistance package, which Kerry announced Monday in Vietnam, that will help Southeast Asian nations protect their territorial waters.

Washington and Manila are in the final stages of hammering out a deal allowing more U.S. troops, aircraft and ships to temporarily pass through the Philippines, where the last U.S. bases closed in 1992.

“Kerry’s visit can be expected to act as a catalyst for change,” said John Blaxland, a security and defense analyst at Australia National University’s College of Asia and the Pacific.

“He will be eager to leverage the visit to speed up and finalize arrangements and assure the Philippines and other regional powers that the U.S. is not just a fair-weather friend,” Blaxland said.

The U.S., a one-time colonial power in the Philippines, has been the greatest contributor of aid following Typhoon Haiyan, which left nearly 8,000 dead or missing.

Washington deployed an aircraft carrier group and committed 1,000 U.S. Marines and $20 million in a mobilization that served as a preview of the deal’s intensified defense engagement.

Beijing, meanwhile, drew scorn with an initial post-storm offer of just $100,000 to the Philippines.

Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, said Washington’s humanitarian response could help it secure the military pact with Manila.

“America’s immediate, massive and generous support in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan could well hasten negotiations on U.S. military rotational deployments through the Philippines,” Storey said.

China’s growing assertiveness in the region as well as the increasing frequency of deadly natural disasters in the Philippines “underscore the growing importance of Manila’s alliance with Washington,” Storey said.

China’s recent declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea — which has infuriated Japan and South Korea — has also raised concerns in the Philippines.

Storey said that while Beijing has not officially declared a similar zone for the South China Sea, “it might do so in the near future.”