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US troops trained their Philippine counterparts how to use surveillance drones Friday, as Manila seeks to boost military ties with Washington and counter what it perceives as a rising security threat from China.
The naval exercises are part of annual training operations between the two defence partners, but they have come under closer scrutiny this year due to simmering tensions between Manila and Beijing over rival claims to the South China Sea.
At a naval base around 13 kilometres (eight miles) southwest of the capital Manila, US Navy SEALs trained Filipino soldiers how to use small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones, launching one from a boat out at sea after which it circled the base and landed in the water.
US maritime civil affairs officer Jeremy Eden said these were the smaller "Puma" drones used only for surveillance and not the more lethal, armed versions employed in Afghanistan.
"They (the Filipinos) are very interested and highly motivated to learn and if they acquire the systems, they will use them effectively," Eden said.
The drones would be useful for the poorly-equipped Philippine military which faces both internal insurgencies and potential external threats, said Lieutenant Jojit Fiscar, a senior coordinator of the naval exercises.
"This would be a very good instrument to use. This unmanned aerial vehicle can monitor the actual movement of the targets," he said.
The US and Philippine troops also practiced marksmanship and piloting small rubber boats which are frequently used by naval commandos.
Military officials from both sides stressed that the exercises had nothing to do with China's claim to the South China Sea.
But Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin reiterated Friday that the Philippines was looking to give the United States greater access to its military bases, saying this was needed to respond to China's threats.
"At this point in time, we cannot stand alone. We need allies. If we don't do this, we will be bullied by bigger powers and that is what is happening now: there is China, sitting on our territory," Gazmin said.
"What are we going to do? Wait till they get into our garage?"
On Thursday he said the Philippines wanted to give the United States and also Japan greater access to its military bases.
President Benigno Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said separately that any increased US presence would comply with the Philippine constitution.
She also said China should not object. "Whatever we do within our territory... is perfectly within our rights."
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital South China Sea, even waters close to the shores of its smaller neighbours.
Tensions between Beijing and other claimants to the sea, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam, have escalated in recent years amid a series of Chinese political and military actions to assert its claims to the waters.