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Aquino secures US pledge for Philippine defense upgrade

WASHINGTON - The United States pledged Thursday to help the Philippines step up its defenses in the face of a rising China as it welcomes President Benigno Aquino III, seen by US officials as a promising partner.

President Barack Obama will meet Friday at the White House with Aquino, who has raised the profile of the Philippines in Washington through his pledges to tackle corruption and to boost the military relationship with the United States.

Top US military officer General Martin Dempsey, who met Aquino on Monday in Manila, said that he spoke about expanding cooperation with the former US colony beyond recent efforts focused on fighting Islamic insurgents.

The Philippines "has been inward-focused on its internal terrorism and insurgent issues for some time - for decades really - and so have a very limited capability to project power or to influence activities around it," said Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"We think that they need some of that, particularly in maritime security," Dempsey told reporters in Washington.

The United States has already been helping to upgrade the notoriously antiquated Philippine military and Aquino has agreed to let a greater number of US troops rotate - but not set up bases - in the archipelago.

The cooperation comes as the Philippines sees particularly tense relations with China, which has butted heads with a number of its neighbors in recent years over territorial disputes in strategic waters.

Friction escalated in April when Chinese and Philippine vessels approached the Scarborough Shoal, which lies near the main Philippine island of Luzon. Manila says the rock formation falls within its exclusive economic zone, but China claims the shoal along with nearly all of the South China Sea.

Dempsey said he spoke with Aquino about the need to "ensure freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea.

Dempsey said that he and Aquino did not discuss the disputes in themselves but "we certainly called on all claimants to resolve these issues through existing international fora and without coercion."

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