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Philippines near pact to boost US troop presence, Aquino says

A Navy sailor teaches visit, board, search and seizure techniques to Philippine marines during Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training Philippines 2013 in this June 2013 photo.

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is "very close" to completing an agreement to boost the number of U.S. troops allowed into the country at a time of growing tension over territorial disputes with China, President Benigno Aquino said Wednesday.

"I haven't been presented major sticking points, so I assume we are close to it," Aquino, 54, said in an interview at his office in Manila. "I won't say that we're a day away from it, but we're very, very close."

Officials from the Philippines and the United States plan a sixth round of talks in early March, after discussions hit a snag last year on issues of access and control over facilities that may be built by the U.S. "They're still crafting the exact language as to how to address that, but we do recognize, we do need facilities to be able to enhance ours and their abilities," Aquino said.

The Philippines is locked in a dispute with China over territory in the resource-rich South China Sea, which has led to tit-for-tat comments in recent months even as economic ties remain strong. The tensions have spurred the Philippines to seek to expand military links with the U.S., a treaty ally, while building a further buffer by strengthening strategic ties with countries such as Japan.

Negotiators may seek to wrap up an agreement before U.S. President Barack Obama visits the Philippines in April as part of a trip to the region that also takes in Japan. The rapid U.S. response after Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the central Philippines in November, also showed the need for a greater troop presence, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario said that month.

The U.S. ended its permanent military presence in the Philippines with the closing of the Subic Bay base after the lease ended in 1991. The U.S. rotates 500 troops into the southern Philippines each year to aid in counter-terrorism operations, while 6,500 come annually for exercises, said Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala, a spokesman for the Philippine military.

Under the current negotiations, the Philippines may give the U.S. access to bases including Subic Bay, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said in August.

Aquino in the interview sought to couch relations as not being "we are against China," while calling for consistency from Beijing on its policies in the region. "Stability promotes trade and creates a bigger market for everybody, which enhances the ability to prosper," he said.

The Philippines also needed to chart its own foreign policy without being dependent on other countries to solve its problems, he said. Manila has sought arbitration by the United Nations on the dueling claims in the South China Sea, a process China has said it does not recognize.

"This is our problem, we are primarily responsible for it," Aquino said of the dispute. "Nobody will champion our rights if we are not able to champion our rights first."

Aquino in an interview with the New York Times published Feb. 5 sought global support to defend territory in the South China Sea from China, drawing a parallel with the West's failure to back Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler's demands for the Sudetenland in 1938.

The official Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary response that Aquino was ignorant to compare China to Nazi Germany, while the commander of U.S. air forces in the Pacific, Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, said in an interview on Feb. 9 that Aquino's comments were "not helpful."

Aquino echoed other Southeast Asian officials in warning China not to seek to replicate in the South China Sea the air defense identification zone it announced in November over territory in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan.

"That shouldn't be a unilateral thing, it does affect so many other countries," he said. "That doesn't help, and hopefully the Chinese leadership also sees that."

On Feb. 1, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei dismissed as "speculation" a report by Japanese newspaper Asahi that China also plans a South China Sea air zone.

China agreed last July at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations-hosted forum in Brunei to work toward rules to avoid conflict in the waters. Still, there has not been major progress on developing a code of conduct, and China introduced fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.

The Philippines is awaiting the start of formal talks on the code of conduct, Aquino said. "I would like to think the collective effort is pushing the formulation of this code," he said.

The South China Sea is also claimed in part by countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei, and includes some of the world's busiest shipping lanes. Vietnam and the Philippines reject China's map of the waters as a basis for joint development of oil and gas, a solution pushed by China.

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