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MANILA (AFP) – The Philippines said Thursday it would soon start talks on expanding U.S. access to its bases, a move that would result in a greater presence of American troops in the country amid rising tensions with China.

The plan, first announced by the country’s defense department in June, would give American soldiers a greater “rotational presence” in the country and comes as China has increased its assertiveness over its claims in the South China Sea.

Speaking to the press Thursday, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said: “We’re trying to do it as soon as we can, as early as we can. I think if we’re talking about access we need to discuss the modalities and parameters.”

Several hundred U.S. Special Forces troops have been on short term deployments in the southern Philippines since 2002 to help train local troops fighting Islamic militants.

“If and when there is agreement on the access, then there will be equipment coming in from the [United] States,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on June 27.

“Modalities for the increased rotational presence are right now being examined. One modality is the conduct of high-value, high-impact exercises,” Gazmin said, without elaborating.

Gazmin, however, emphasised the plan would not see any new bases or a permanent U.S. presence in the Philippines.

The United States had tens of thousands of troops stationed in the Philippines, at the Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base north of Manila, until the early 1990s.

The United States, a former colonial ruler of the Philippines, was forced to abandon the bases amid anti-U.S. sentiment and a row over rent. The constitution now bans any permanent foreign bases in the Philippines.

However Clark and Subic, now partly converted to business use, still host and service U.S. military aircraft and warships on short-term exercises.

China claims most of the South China Sea including waters close to the shores of its neighbours including the Philippines.

Last year China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, about 230 kilometres (140 miles) off the coast of the main Philippine island of Luzon, after the Filipino navy backed down from a lengthy stand-off.

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