Arroyo says U.S. military trained Philippine soldiers to defend Spratlys against Chinese.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo said Saturday the U.S. military was training Philippine soldiers to defend the Spratly islands against China until she asked them to shift to fighting the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremist group.

It was the first time that a Philippine leader has acknowledged that China was a target of military exercises between Philippine and U.S. forces.

In her weekly radio program, Arroyo said U.S. military assistance to the Philippines, principally for anti-terrorism, has ballooned from US$1.9 million when she took office three years ago to US$400 million, and the country is expected to get more after Washington declared the Philippines a major non-NATO ally.

The Abu Sayyaf has conducted numerous kidnappings, including of American and other foreign tourists, and is notorious for beheading captives. In the past week, the government said it prevented "Madrid-level" bombings of malls and trains in the capital allegedly planned by Abu Sayyaf members trained by Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terror group linked to al-Qaida.

"America has helped us in our fight against terrorism," she said. "When the Abu Sayyaf emerged, I told the Americans, 'I don't want the training to defend the Spratlys against the Chinese anymore _ it's not relevant and it's not realistic."'

The two allies hold an annual military exercise, called Balikatan or "shoulder-to-shoulder," in accordance with a 1951 defense treaty under which Filipino and U.S. troops cooperate to beef up the Philippines' defense.

China has expressed concern about the possibility of being targeted as a hypothetical enemy in the exercises and that some activities may be held in the Spratlys.

Philippine defense officials have taken pains in the past to clarify that such exercises were "not directed at any particular country, adversary, or notional enemy."

The conflict between China and the Philippines over the small islands in the South China Sea has simmered over the years and has been a thorn in bilateral relations.

The Spratlys straddle important shipping lanes, teem with fish and are believed to be rich in oil and natural gas. China, Vietnam and Taiwan claim the entire chain, while the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia claim some of the islands.

[Source: China Post, Associated Press, 04Apr04]

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