MANILA, Philippines -- Chinese diplomats expressed their strong opposition to an expanded United States military presence in the Philippines in private talks with their Filipino counterparts Thursday in Manila, a Filipino official said, underscoring the intense U.S.-China rivalry in the region.
The Philippine official, who attended the meeting, told The Associated Press about China's intense objections on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to discuss what transpired at the start of the two-day talks. The Filipino diplomats responded by saying the decision to allow an expanded American military presence was in their national interest and would boost Philippine capability to respond to natural disasters, the official said, suggesting it was not aimed at China.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong and Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro led the talks aimed at assessing overall relations between the two sides amid thorny issues, including Beijing's alarm over a Philippine decision to allow the U.S. military to expand its presence to a northern region facing the Taiwan Strait and escalating spats in the South China Sea.
The discussions today will focus on the long-seething territorial spats in the disputed waterway, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.
The back-to-back meetings are the first under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June. He met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a state visit to Beijing in January, where both agreed to expand ties, pursue talks on potential joint oil and gas explorations and manage territorial disputes amicably.
In early February, the Marcos administration announced it would allow rotating batches of American forces to indefinitely station in four more Philippine military camps. Those are in addition to five local bases earlier designated under a 2014 defense pact between the longtime treaty allies.
Marcos said Wednesday the four new military sites would include areas in the northern Philippines. That location has infuriated Chinese officials because it would provide U.S. forces a staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan.
The Americans would also have access to military areas on the western Philippine island province of Palawan, Marcos said, adding that the U.S. military presence under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was aimed at boosting coastal defense.
Palawan faces the South China Sea, a key passage for global trade that Beijing claims virtually in its entirety but a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal ruled in 2016 that historical claim had no legal basis under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas.
China had dismissed the ruling, which Washington and other Western governments recognize, and continues to defy it.
When asked to react to the Philippine decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a news briefing Wednesday in Beijing that defense cooperation between countries "needs to be conducive to regional peace and stability and not targeted at or harmful to the interests of any third party."
Wang warned countries in the region "to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the U.S." without naming the Philippines.
A recent statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Manila was more blunt and warned that the Manila government's security cooperation with Washington "will drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and damage its economic development at the end of the day."
The territorial conflicts have persisted as a major irritant in relations early in the six-year term of Marcos, whose administration has filed at least 77 of more than 200 diplomatic protests by the Philippines against China's increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters since last year alone.
That included a Feb. 6 incident when a Chinese coast guard ship aimed a military-grade laser that briefly blinded some crew members of a Philippine patrol vessel off a disputed shoal.
Information for this article was contributed by Joael Calupitan of The Associated Press.