* Talks on more combat ships, spy aircraft
* Grappling with China’s growing assertiveness
* No plans for any new U.S. bases (Adds U.S.-Philippine joint statement issued in Washington)
By Manuel Mogato
MANILA, Jan 27 (Reuters) - The Philippines is considering a U.S. proposal to deploy surveillance aircraft on a temporary, rotating basis to enhance its ability to guard disputed areas in the South China Sea, the Philippine defence minister said on Friday.
Two days of talks in Washington this week on security ties between the two allies include plans to deploy more littoral combat ships and spy aircraft, Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.
The effort to expand military ties between the United States and the Philippines, which voted to remove huge American naval and air bases 20 years ago, occurs as both countries grapple with the growing assertiveness of China.
An expanded U.S. military presence in the region should help the Philippines better deter border intrusions, Gazmin said.
“I would rather look at it from the positive point of view that there would be stability in the region, that we would have enough deterrent,” he told reporters.
“Without a deterrent force, we can be easily pushed around, our territories will be violated. Now that we have a good neighbor on the block, we can no longer be bullied,” he said, referring to the United States.
Officials from the two nations said after the talks they were committed to deepening cooperation on “security, defense, commerce, law enforcement, human rights, and disaster relief” but providing no details.
In a joint statement released by the U.S. State Department, they said their foreign and defense ministers would hold a joint meeting in March, though they did not specify a date or venue.
In Washington, Navy Captain John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, described talks with the Philippines as “preliminary.”
Kirby said they involved the potential for expanded exercise opportunities, exchange programs, more U.S. Navy ship visits “and other ways for us to partner with the Philippine military.”
The talks with the Philippines, a U.S. ally which voted to remove huge American naval and air bases 20 years ago, follow Washington’s announcement of plans to set up a Marine base in northern Australia and possibly station warships in Singapore.
The Obama administration describes the moves as part of a “pivot” toward economically dynamic Asia designed to reassure allies that felt neglected during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
But China sees the deployments as part of a broader U.S. attempt to encircle it as it grows into a major power.
The South China Sea could be a flash point.
China claims the entire sea, while the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan all have claims to parts of the area believed to have rich deposits of oil and gas.
Gazmin confirmed a U.S. offer to deploy surveillance aircraft in the Philippines but he said there was no plan for any new U.S. bases. The Philippines has a constitutional ban on foreign military bases on its soil.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Washington the military’s goal is to have a network of places close to the sea lanes of Southeast Asia where American forces can visit on rotation.
“There is no desire nor view right now that the U.S. is seeking basing options anywhere in the Asia-Pacific theater,” he said.
Gazmin said there would be more exercises with U.S. forces and a rotating presence through port visits for exercises, repairs and resupply.
Since 2002, about 600 U.S. commandos have been stationed in the south of the Philippines to help train and advise Philippine troops in fighting a small Islamist militant group with ties to al Qaeda.
A Philippine military source told Reuters the head of the U.S. Pacific Command had proposed last August the deployment of P-3C Orion surveillance aircraft.
More talks are due in Washington in March.
Left-wing Philippine groups are planning to hold protests outside the U.S. embassy in Manila on Saturday to denounce what they describe as the “treacherous” negotiations with the United States.
“They say that they will not bring back the U.S. bases but the proposal aims for virtual basing just the same,” Renato Reyes, secretary-general of left-wing Bayan (Nation) group, said in a statement.
The Philippines hosted major U.S. military facilities with tens of thousands of airmen and sailors for nearly a century until 1992 when U.S. forces pulled out after a vote in the Philippine Senate to terminate the bases treaty.
In 1998, the Philippines and the United States signed a Visiting Forces Agreement that allows U.S. troops to visit for exercises and rest and recreation.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda also said the talks would not include the creation of any new U.S. bases. (Additional reporting by Paul Eckert and Jim Wolf in Washington; Editing by Rosemarie Francisco and Eric Walsh)