Clinton to Philippines in US Asia drive

HONOLULU, Hawaii, Nov 14, 2011 (AFP) - Secretary of State Hillary Clinton headed Monday to the Philippines on a trip that will also include Thailand as the United States steps up efforts to reassure Asian allies of its staying power.

The visit comes a day before President Barack Obama leaves for another longtime ally, Australia, on the heels of playing host to Asian leaders in Hawaii for a summit that moved forward on an ambitious Pacific trade pact.

Obama and Clinton will head at the end of the week to an East Asia Summit in Bali, hoping to show an active role in a forum where some countries earlier sought to exclude the United States.

Clinton was expected to hold talks Wednesday with Philippine President Benigno Aquino and sign a formal declaration that looks to lay out a path for future relations between Manila and its former colonial power.

Amid concern in several Asian countries about China's growing clout, Clinton said the United States was "updating" relationships with its five treaty-bound regional allies -- Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.

"These five alliances are the fulcrum for our efforts in the Asia-Pacific," Clinton said in a speech last week at the East-West Center in Honolulu.

"They leverage our regional presence and enhance our regional leadership at a time of evolving security challenges," she said.

Clinton and Obama have vowed to put a new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, saying that the United States wants to help build the emerging institutions of the fast-growing region which is vital both for the US economy and security.

Despite looming budget cuts, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently pledged that Asia would be the military's priority as he visited Japan, South Korea and emerging US ally Indonesia.

Clinton said that the United States wanted to ensure that its alliances enjoy political support and that its defense cooperation with each country was enough for "deterring provocation."

"We want our alliances to be nimble and adaptive so they can continue to deliver results," she said.

Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command, also stressed that the five treaty alliances "form in many ways the basis for security in the region."

"One of our endeavors is to improve those alliances and strengthen those alliances along the way," Willard told reporters in Honolulu.

The Philippines has accused the Chinese military of aggressive acts in Philippine-claimed areas, including firing on Filipino fishermen, laying buoys and harassing an oil exploration vessel.

Zenia Rodriguez, head of the political science office at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, said that Clinton's trip was timely in light of the tensions in the South China Sea, including over the Spratly islands.

While US policymakers have been upbeat about the Philippines under Aquino, they have been more concerned over Thailand after an extended period of political chaos in the kingdom.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the sister of coup-ousted former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, came to power only in August and has come under intense pressure as she tackles deadly floods that have threatened the capital Bangkok.

Clinton said she would offer new flood aid to Thailand, whose powerful military initially did not request the assistance of a US aircraft carrier that was near Thai waters.

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