NUSA DUA, November 18, 2011 (AFP) - US President Barack Obama on Friday told Philippine President Benigno Aquino, who is embroiled in a territorial spat with China, that the US was "looking out" for his country.
Manila, which has been in a security alliance with the US for 60 years, is caught up in a long-running dispute with Beijing over the strategically vital South China Sea, where the two countries are among six claimants.
Obama, in the Indonesian resort of Bali for the East Asia Summit, said the US-Philippines relationship ensured "we are looking out for each other when it comes to security".
"This is an opportunity for us to discuss how we can further deepen that relationship; also, to discuss the topics of the East Asia Summit -- issues like maritime security, nonproliferation, disaster and humanitarian relief," he said.
He hailed Aquino has an "outstanding partner": "I just want to commend President Aquino for his leadership, for his reform efforts."
The Philippines has been seeking to build a united front against China over Beijing's territorial claims in the South China Sea in two days of Asian meetings in Bali, but has received lukewarm support from partners.
But Washington, while not commenting directly on Manila's plans, has said regional summits are the right place to raise maritime security issues, even if they are not tribunals for deciding individual disputes.
Aquino hailed the long-running alliance and shared values and history between the US and the Philippines.
"We forward, in these turbulent times of ours, to really further strengthen our relationship," he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday on a visit to the Philippines, which along with Vietnam has complained China is staking its claims more aggressively, that threats over sea disputes were unacceptable.
"Any nation with a claim has a right to exert it, but they do not have a right to pursue it through intimidation or coercion," she said.
"Let me say, the United States will always be in the corner of the Philippines and we will stand and fight with you."
China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei have overlapping claims in the region which is a conduit for more than one-third of the world's seaborne trade and half its traffic in oil and gas.
Tensions have erupted anew in recent times, with the Philippines and Vietnam saying that Chinese vessels had harassed their ships and cut exploration cables.
US comments on the maritime disputes in the region are likely to rile China, which has already bristled about Obama's complaints that Beijing does not play by the "rules of the road" in international economic relations.