(Reuters) - Philippines President Benigno Aquino is in the United States for a visit that will highlight the Southeast Asian archipelago's growing importance in U.S. strategic thinking, as the White House "pivots" to Asia and both countries worry about China's intentions.
Aquino, well-regarded by the U.S. government, not least for fighting corruption, arrived on Wednesday and will be accorded a White House meeting on Friday with President Barack Obama.
That meeting comes as Washington has begun helping Manila beef up its modest military capacities in the face of a confrontation with China over contested South China Sea reefs.
The United States, colonial ruler of the Philippines from 1898-1946 and a treaty ally with Manila since 1951, has embraced the Philippines as part of a policy that makes the Asia-Pacific region the center of U.S. security and economic strategy.
"The meeting between President Aquino and President Obama will lay the groundwork for the future of the strategic partnership between the Philippines and the United States," said Jose Cuisia, the Philippines ambassador in Washington.
Aquino will also meet senior U.S. lawmakers for "discussions on our bilateral economic and defense cooperation, the shift in the focus of the United States toward the Asia-Pacific and ways to revitalize our alliance," the envoy said in a statement.
Washington's "rebalancing" of forces to the Asia-Pacific region, a strategy two decades in the making, has accelerated under the Obama administration as a response to China's rapid military modernization and growing assertiveness in that region.
A U.S. official said Washington saw Aquino as a leader who is "trying to do the right thing" to tackle the corruption, cronyism and red tape that have held back the economy of his nation of 93 million people.
But the United States is moving cautiously in solidifying defense ties with Manila. The Philippines evicted the U.S. military from Naval Station Subic Bay in 1992, passed a constitutional provision banning foreign bases on its soil, and nationalist sentiment remains high.
NO NEW U.S. BASES
Even as it fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States kept more than 70,000 troops in a network of military bases in Japan and South Korea that date back to the 1950s.
The Obama policy has focused on Southeast Asia and crafting flexible arrangements with other allies in Asia, Australia and the Philippines, and ship visits to Singapore and Vietnam.
No new U.S. bases are envisioned under this scheme, although 2,500 U.S. troops will rotate through and train in Darwin, Australia. Any new arrangements with the Philippines would be smaller than the Australian program, U.S. officials say.
The top U.S. military officer, fresh from a visit to the Philippines where he met Aquino, said the United States was looking at potential locations where the military might increase its exercise and rotational presence.
"We did talk about that with my counterpart, not on the political side, but with my Filipino chief of defense counterpart," General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday.
Asked if former U.S. facilities at Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base were under consideration, he said: "I wouldn't say specifically Subic and Clark, although they are obvious locations were we to increase our exercise and rotational presence."
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last weekend the Pentagon will reposition its naval fleet so 60 percent of its battleships are in the Asia-Pacific region by the end of the decade, up from about 50 percent now. The move drew a pledge from China's People's Liberation Army to increase its vigilance.
In upgrading its military capability to protect its interests in disputed areas of the South China Sea, Manila has been looking to Washington for ships, aircraft and surveillance and equipment to build a credible defense posture.
After high-level bilateral security and diplomatic talks in late April, the Obama administration pledged to increase its annual foreign military sales program to the Philippines to $30 million, about three times the level of the 2011 program.
"We've been working with the Philippines on military modernization for 12 or 13 years, very intensively," said Walter Lohman, a Southeast Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank.
"The only thing that has changed is the urgency of this and the seriousness the Philippines has shown under the Aquino administration," he said.
U.S. BALANCING ACT
Manila's new urgency stems from a months-long showdown with China at the Scarborough Shoal, a horse-shoe shaped reef near the Philippines in waters both countries claim.
The United States is formally neutral on South China Sea territorial issues. But Washington's promotion of multilateral diplomacy to handle the disputes clashes with China's insistence on bilateral talks with its weaker neighbors.
"We want to empower international rules of the road in maritime security, not to isolate any one nation or to take a position on a claim - for instance, in the South China Sea - but rather to make sure that claims can be resolved peacefully," said a senior U.S. official.
Washington believes that multilateral discussions of the South China Sea is more fair to claimants and it wants China and its neighbors to advance so far slow-moving efforts to set up a code of conduct to manage disputes, said the official.
"The United States has the dilemma of balancing the many, many vital interests we have in our relations with China, with our interests in Southeast Asia and it really is a balancing act," said Southeast Asia security expert Don Weatherbee.
Weatherbee, emeritus professor at the University of South Carolina, said that while Manila could not expect a "blank check" from Washington in a territorial conflict with Beijing, U.S. credibility would face scrutiny.
"It's not just a question of U.S.-Philippines relations. It's a question of the American security guarantee in East Asia and the Asia-Pacific and what is actually meant by the word guarantee," he said.
This week's meetings in Washington will also take up the prospect of the Philippines joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a free trade pact in the Asia Pacific region with nine members that is also examining applications by Japan, Canada and Mexico.