US, Philippines agree on locations covered by defense pact

By MATTHEW PENNINGTON - Associated Press ,

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U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, speaks during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel, speaks during a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo: AP Photo/Nattasuda Anusonadisai, File)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. and the Philippines have agreed on locations where American forces will have access as the U.S. looks to reassert its presence in Asia, officials said Friday.

The allies were holding strategic talks in Washington amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea, where the Philippines is challenging China's sweeping territorial claims.

Senior U.S. defense official Amy Searight said there was agreement on five locations to be covered by a 10-year defense cooperation agreement. She did not identify them.

Searight predicted a "momentous" year for the U.S.-Philippine relationship. She said Defense Secretary Ash Carter would travel to the Philippines in April to discuss implementation of the pact.

The pact was signed by U.S. and Philippine officials in 2014 and has a 10-year lifespan, but only got approval in January after the Philippine Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional.

The pact will allow American forces, warships and planes to temporarily base in local military camps. The U.S. shut its bases in the Philippines in 1992 amid a tide of Philippine nationalism, but the resurgent territorial dispute with China has since prompted Manila to reach out to Washington.

U.S. Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino said the Philippines was a "reliable partner" and was looking forward to working with the U.S. to develop the agreed-upon locations.

Searight said the administration has notified Congress that it intends to spend $50 million on boosting the maritime security of Southeast Asian nations, and most would go to the Philippines.

Congress has authorized that amount for this year to be spent on assistance and training of nations along the South China Sea, where six Asian governments have competing territorial claims.

Daniel Russel, top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said an upcoming ruling by an international tribunal on a case brought by the Philippines that challenges the legal basis of China's claims to virtually all of the South China Sea would be a critical moment for "rules-based" future of the region.

China says it is not bound by the arbitration and has refused to take part.

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