MANILA, April 14 (Reuters) - U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced on Thursday that U.S. troops and military equipment would be sent on regular rotations in the Philippines, and said the two countries had started joint patrols in the South China Sea amid increasingly assertive territorial claims by China.
The new military initiatives, consisting of rotations of U.S. forces and equipment, are designed so that the United States does not increase its permanent footprint in its former colony, but demonstrates that the two countries are increasing security cooperation amid joint concerns over China's actions in the region's disputed waterways.
The first U.S.-Philippines joint patrol in the South China Sea occurred in March and a second one happened early this month and would occur "regularly" in the future, the Pentagon said.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, believed to have huge deposits of oil and gas. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims to parts of the waters, through which about $5 trillion in trade is shipped every year.
"Countries across the Asia-Pacific are voicing concern with China's land reclamation, which stands out in size and scope, as well as its militarization in the South China Sea," Carter told reporters. "They're voicing those concerns publicly and privately, at the highest levels, in regional meetings, and global fora."
The Philippines has disputed China's claims in a case it has brought before an international arbitration court.
A contingent of U.S. military aircraft and 200 U.S. airmen from U.S. Pacific Air Forces would be at Clark Air Base, a former U.S. Air Force base, through the end of the month, Carter said.
A U.S. defence official said the U.S. expected there would be additional follow-on rotations of aircraft. The aircraft in the initial contingent include five A-10C Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft, three HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopters, and a MC-130H special operations aircraft.
In addition, up to 75 U.S. troops, mostly Marines, would remain in the Philippines "on a rotational basis" after the conclusion of joint "Balikatan" U.S.-Philippines military exercises this week. The troops would support "increased operations in the region," the Pentagon said.
The left-wing Bayan (Nation), an umbrella group of Philippine nationalist and anti-U.S. organisations, dismissed such cooperation with the United States as a move by the U.S. military to create a permanent presence in the Philippines as a platform from which it could dominate the region.
"Our dispute with China can never be used as a reason to allow another country to violate our sovereignty," its secretary-general, Renato Reyes, said in a statement, in apparent reference to the 2014 Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement that grants Washington an increased military presence in the Philippines.
"It cannot be used to justify the return of U.S. bases, under a questionable and open-ended agreement."
(Reporting by Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Nick Macfie)
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