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Aquino goes to White House seeking assurance on defense

WASHINGTON -- The Philippine president comes to the White House seeking assurance of U.S. military help should the Southeast Asian ally face attack by rising power China over their conflicting maritime claims.

That's an awkward question for the U.S. as it seeks to enhance its Asian alliances without alarming Beijing. Philippine President Benigno Aquino III meets President Barack Obama Friday, against the backdrop of a two-month standoff between Philippine and Chinese vessels at a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

China's assertive behavior in those waters have served to bolster Manila's 60-year alliance with Washington that thrived during the Cold War but ebbed after nationalist political forces prompted the closure of American military bases in 1992.

Aquino, the son of democracy heroes, has emerged as a willing partner of the U.S. as it looks to build a stronger presence in Southeast Asia, a region neglected during a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. He's won plaudits for combating corruption since winning election two years ago and has revived the impoverished nation's economy. He's sought Washington's help in rebuilding a decrepit military that is in little shape to defend its territorial claims.

Last month, the U.S. handed to the Philippines a second Coast Guard cutter, following the transfer last year of a similar 45-year old vessel that has since become a flagship in the Philippine navy as the island nation increasingly focusses on its maritime security. Close U.S. ally Japan is also reportedly preparing to supply the Philippines with 10 smaller, new patrol vessels.

In a boost to his standing as a worthy ally, Aquino will meet with Obama at the Oval Office after a State Department luncheon hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. He met with senators Thursday.

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