MANILA, Philippines — Chinese diplomats expressed their strong opposition to an expanded United States military presence in the Philippines in closed-door talks with their Filipino counterparts Thursday in Manila, a Filipino official said, underscoring the intense U.S.-China rivalry in the region.

The Philippine official, who attended the meeting, told The Associated Press about China’s intense objections on condition of anonymity for lack of authority to discuss what transpired at the start of the two-day talks. The Filipino diplomats responded by saying the decision to allow an expanded American military presence was in their national interest and would boost Philippine capability to respond to natural disasters, the official said, suggesting it was not aimed at China.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong and Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Theresa Lazaro led the talks aimed at assessing overall relations between the two sides amid thorny issues, including Beijing’s alarm over a Philippine decision to allow the U.S. military to expand its presence to a northern region facing the Taiwan Strait and escalating spats in the South China Sea.

Theresa Lazaro, left, Philippines' Undersecretary for Bilateral Relations and Asian Affairs of the Department of Foreign Affairs, shake hands with Sun Weidong, China's Vice Foreign Minister, prior to the start of the Philippines-China Foreign Ministry consultation meeting at a hotel in Manila on Thursday, March 23, 2023.

The discussions on Friday will focus on the long-seething territorial spats in the disputed waterway, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.

The back-to-back meetings are the first under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who took office in June. He met Chinese President Xi Jinping in a state visit to Beijing in January, where both agreed to expand ties, pursue talks on potential joint oil and gas explorations and manage territorial disputes amicably.

In early February, the Marcos administration announced it would allow rotating batches of American forces to indefinitely station in four more Philippine military camps. Those are in addition to five local bases earlier designated under a 2014 defense pact between the longtime treaty allies.

Marcos said Wednesday the four new military sites would include areas in the northern Philippines. That location has infuriated Chinese officials because it would provide U.S. forces a staging ground close to southern China and Taiwan.

The Americans would also have access to military areas on the western Philippine island province of Palawan, Marcos said, adding that the U.S. military presence under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement was aimed at boosting coastal defense.

Palawan faces the South China Sea, a key passage for global trade that Beijing claims virtually in its entirety but a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal ruled in 2016 that historical claim had no legal basis under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Seas.

China had dismissed the ruling, which Washington and other Western governments recognize, and continues to defy it.

When asked to react to the Philippine decision, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a news briefing Wednesday in Beijing that defense cooperation between countries “needs to be conducive to regional peace and stability and not targeted at or harmful to the interests of any third party.”

Wang warned countries in the region “to remain vigilant and avoid being coerced or used by the U.S.” without naming the Philippines.

A recent statement issued by the Chinese Embassy in Manila was more blunt and warned that the Manila government’s security cooperation with Washington “will drag the Philippines into the abyss of geopolitical strife and damage its economic development at the end of the day.”

The territorial conflicts have persisted as a major irritant in relations early in the six-year term of Marcos, whose administration has filed at least 77 of more than 200 diplomatic protests by the Philippines against China’s increasingly assertive actions in the disputed waters since last year alone.

That included a Feb. 6 incident when a Chinese coast guard ship aimed a military-grade laser that briefly blinded some crew members of a Philippine patrol vessel off a disputed shoal. Marcos summoned the Chinese ambassador to Manila to express concern over the incident, but Beijing said the Philippine vessel intruded into Chinese territorial waters and its coast guard used a harmless laser gadget to monitor the vessel’s movement.

The Biden administration has been strengthening an arc of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific to better counter China, including in any future confrontation over Taiwan. The U.S. moves dovetail with Philippine efforts to shore up its territorial defense amid its disputes with China in the South China Sea.

The U.S. denied Chinese claims Thursday that its military had driven away an American guided-missile destroyer from operating around disputed islands in the South China Sea, with the U.S. Navy’s 7th Fleet saying in a statement the USS Milius was conducting routine operations in the waterway and was not expelled.

China’s Southern Theatre Command had earlier said it had forced the USS Milius away from waters around the Paracel Islands, which China calls Xisha, after it “illegally entered China’s Xisha territorial waters without approval from the Chinese government, undermining peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

Two senior Filipino officials told the AP that the Philippine government would extend the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which allows the temporary presence of U.S. forces and their defense equipment in the country. The Philippine Constitution prohibits the permanent basing of foreign troops in the country and their involvement in local combat.

The agreement, signed in 2014, would initially be effective for 10 years and would remain in force automatically unless terminated by either side with a one-year advance written notice.

The two officials spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because they lack authority to discuss the issue publicly.

Associated Press journalist Joeal Calupitan contributed.

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