Panetta, Clinton to discuss Philippine role in Pacific strategy

Panetta and Clinton will sit down with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario and Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin next Monday, DOD spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters Friday. 

It will be the first time the heads of the U.S. and Filipino military and diplomatic corps have come together to discuss current challenges in the region, according to Kirby. 

The meetings come at a time when the United States is looking to dramatically increase its presence in the Philippines and the Asia-Pacific region. 

That increase was a critical part of the White House's new national security strategy, released in February. 

A U.S. special-operations task force has been stationed in the region since 2001, supporting Filipino forces in their ongoing campaign against Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim extremist groups in the southern part of the country. 

The task force is one of the longest-running U.S. counterterrorism missions in the Pacific. 

U.S. and Filipino troops are also wrapping up large-scale bilateral war games in Palawan, known as the Balikatan exercises. 

Hundreds of Marines are also expected to flood into the Philippines in the coming years as part of the service’s growing focus on the region, Assistant Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Joseph Dunford said last month. 

Recently, DOD officials agreed to relocate 9,000 Marines from Okinawa to Guam and other outposts in the Pacific. It remains unclear whether those displaced Marines will end up on Philippine soil. 

The Navy is also planning a four-month humanitarian operation in the region in May. Known as the Pacific Partnership mission, the Navy's hospital ship USS Mercy will make port calls in the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and Cambodia.

However, local backlash against an increased U.S. footprint in the Philippines has already begun to bubble to the surface. 

Last Friday, a local group in the southern Philippines demanded an overarching review of U.S. involvement in the region after the death of a Filipino civilian. 

A U.S. patrol boat piloted by members of special-operations forces collided with a small fishing vessel in the waters around the Mindanao region of the island nation. A Filipino fisherman was killed and his son injured as a result of the crash, Philippine military officials said at the time. 

The group, Patriotiko Mindanao, has also been a vocal critic of the U.S.-Philippine military exercises in Palawan. 

A new seaport being built by the Filipino government in the Spratly Islands has also sparked concerns that it could become the Pentagon's military outpost in the hotly contested South China Sea.

Manila has denied any assertions the facility will be used by Filipino or U.S. troops, claiming the effort is strictly designed to support commercial business and tourism to the island. 

To that end, Kirby said Friday said any increased presence of U.S. military personnel in the Philippines would be on a rotational basis. There are no plans to establish permanent U.S. military bases in the Philippines, he said. 

The last two permanent U.S. military installations in the Philippines were the Clark Air Force base and the naval base in Subic Bay. American forces pulled out from both bases in 1991 and 1992, respectively.