Manila would not rule out allowing Chinese naval ships to call on the country's bases, including a planned defence installation at the former US naval facility in Subic, the Philippines' military chief told the South China Morning Post yesterday.
Subic, once a prized military facility for the US, is earmarked for a major upgrade with new bases that would allow the Philippines to station warships and new fighter jets just 124 nautical miles from Scarborough Shoal, a contentious area now controlled by China after a tense stand-off last year.
"Many foreign ships visit our ports and we welcome them, that is part of military diplomacy," Armed Forces chief of staff General Emmanuel Bautista said during a foreign correspondents forum in Manila.
Bautista's openness to the idea could be interpreted in a number of ways, including as a conciliatory gesture to Beijing. The PLA Navy has made three official ports of call to the Philippines since 1998.
But the Philippines has made no secret that it also wants to allow US forces to visit for longer periods and be stationed on Philippine military bases temporarily. Beijing has bristled at the intention of the US to "pivot" to the region it considers its backyard.
That issue would have no doubt been a theme of discussion between China's defence minister General Chang Wanquan and US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, who were due to meet yesterday on the sidelines of a two-day gathering of defence ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei.
The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea, and the area has for decades been regarded as a potential trigger for major military conflict.
Bautista said: "We are such a poor country compared to China, that is why we are trying to leverage our alliances with our friends, with our allies to collectively create a security environment to prevent any aggression."
He added that "while we do not have the wherewithal, the capability to defend our territory by ourselves, we partner with others to collectively assure the security of our region."
The Armed Forces of the Philippines is undertaking a five-year, 75 billion peso (HK$13 billion) programme that emphasises a build-up of naval and air forces. It recently acquired a second refurbished Hamilton-class cutter from the US coastguard to bolster its small navy.
Many believe the military build-up is a reaction to China's strident claims on - and in several instances, outright occupation of - contested islands and shoals in the South China Sea.
Bautista said "there is a lot of encroachment from different nationalities; Taiwanese, Vietnamese and Chinese fishermen are being caught in Philippine waters".
"We do not see any country as our enemy," he added.
"There is still a presence of Chinese maritime surveillance vessels and fisheries ships on Scarborough Shoal."
Bautista was referring to one strategic area China calls Huangyan Island. Manila has continued to object to a Chinese presence at Second Thomas shoal.
When asked what the military's response would be to the so-called "cabbage strategy" of China - blanketing contested territory with "layers" of fishermen, maritime vessels, and naval ships - Bautista replied: "Our policy is non-confrontation, and it will not change."
He said the Philippines aimed to shift the military away from a decades-long counter insurgency effort into developing a minimum credible defence.
Additional reporting by Reuters, Associated Press