MANILA—U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday pressed the case to the Philippines to allow a rotating U.S. troop force to return to the country, an effort that would build up the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia and provide stepped-up training opportunities to the Philippine military.
U.S. and Philippine officials are negotiating a framework agreement that would let American forces use the Philippines’ military bases, though Mr. Hagel emphasized there would be no permanent bases or troop presence.
Negotiations were made public earlier this month. A final agreement on the troop deal is expected ahead of a planned visit by President Barack Obama to Southeast Asia, the dates and specifics of which have yet to be announced. U.S. defense officials are eager to conclude the deal, which Philippine officials say would give American forces regular access to its military bases, allowing American forces to operate in the critical strategic area.
The U.S. left its bases—the U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base—in the early 1990s. Some Filipinos oppose a renewed presence of American troops. On Thursday, a small group of about 40 people protested Mr. Hagel’s visit to the Philippines outside the U.S. Embassy.
Mr. Hagel stressed at a news conference on Friday that the U.S. doesn’t want new permanent bases, but instead permission to rotate through its forces for regular exercises or in times of crisis. The U.S. is rotating Marines through a base in Darwin, Australia, and is rotating Navy ships through Singapore.
“The United States does not seek permanent bases in the Philippines—that would represent a return to an outdated Cold War mentality,” Mr. Hagel said. “Instead we are using a new model of military-to-military cooperation benefiting two great allies and partners.”
The Philippines is trying to rebuild its own military in the face of territorial disputes with China over portions of the South China Sea. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the agreement to bring the U.S. back to the Philippines would speed the modernization of his country’s military forces.
Mr. Gazmin said once the framework agreement is complete, the U.S. will have access to Subic Bay and other Philippine military installations, ushering in increased joint exercises and training.
“We suggested enhanced engagement with U.S. forces is necessary and will mean more forces and more engagement,” he said.
This week the Chinese rescinded an invitation to Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to visit Beijing, according to Philippine officials. Chinese officials didn’t confirm the rescinded invitation, but in a statement said they hoped China and the Philippines would be able to “clear up disturbances.”
Mr. Hagel was asked if the planned rotational presence of U.S. troops in the Philippines would increase the risk of a conflict between Manila and Beijing. Mr. Hagel said he hoped China’s participation in regional institutions would help solve disagreements.
“They clearly understand that this world is interconnected and that all powers must develop relationships, get along with each other,” Mr. Hagel said.