The USS Ronald Reagan patrols with the U.S. Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea in July. The Philippine defense secretary said Thursday it's highly unlikely his country will allow the U.S. military to use its bases to navigate in the South China Sea. Photo by U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Nathan Burke
MANILA, Dec. 8 (UPI) -- The Philippines said Thursday it likely won't allow the United States to use its bases to patrol the disputed South China Sea.
Instead, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said U.S. ships and aircraft could use bases in Guam, Okinawa or U.S. aircraft carriers.
Since taking office in June, President Rodrigo Duterte has tried to improve relations with China and become more hostile toward the United States, which had sovereignty over the Philippines from the Spanish-American War until after WWII, when the Philippines was recognized as an independent nation.
In a report released last month, Chinese academics said U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will continue to pursue "regional hegemony" in the territorial dispute, mainly involving China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.
Lorenzana said that Duterte wants to avoid escalating tensions in the South China Sea and reduce the Philippines' military dependence on the United States.
"We are buying ships from Indonesia, airplanes from Korea, ships from Korea. Japan is providing us some ships," Lorenzana said he said in an interview with the Financial Times.. "We will maintain our relationship with the United States and maybe develop some more defense relationships with the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] neighbors."
But he added, "I don't think we will cut off ties with the United States. The people relations between the two countries are still huge. We have 100,000 Americans living here and there are about 3 million Filipinos living in the States."
He said the Philippines doesn't plan to scrap its 1951 security treaty with Washington or halt U.S. access to its bases in the country for equipment storage or expel American troops in the southern Philippine islands where radical Islamist groups are strong.
Duterte has threatened to scale back the Philippines' military engagements with the United States, including future joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the disputed waters.
The defense secretary said joint military exercises would also continue but focus on disaster relief and humanitarian assistance.
In November, Duterte met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Peru. Duterte agreed to ban fishing in part of the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines and China have fought over the Scarborough Shoal for years.