TIME Exclusive: President Benigno Aquino on U.S.-Philippine Military Ties

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31st Marine Expeditionary Unit / Reuters

U.S. and Philippine Marines assault a beach using amphibious assault vehicles during a bilateral mock mechanized raid Amphibious Landing Exercise, part of the joint military exercise called PHIBLEX, at Zambales province, north of Manila, Oct. 23, 2011.

Philippine officials are in Washington this week to negotiate an expanded U.S. military presence in the country. The talks, first reported by the Washington Post, are part of what the Obama administration calls a strategic “pivot” to Asia. In November, the U.S. announced plans for a base in northern Australia. Soon after, it broached the idea of stationing ships off Singapore. The U.S. State Department insists that this week’s meetings will focus on issues like training, search and rescue, counter terror and freedom of navigation, not the re-establishment of U.S. military bases in the Philippines. Either way, the move is sure to rile China and complicate the triangular relationship between Washington, Manila and Beijing.

In December, I sat down with Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino for a wide-ranging interview on the Philippines’ politics, economy and foreign policy. We spoke at length about the nation’s strategic posture, including its relationship with China and the United States. As the country heads into negotiations with the U.S., his comments are worth a look. Here are some highlights:

TIME: What’s your strategy to manage your relationship with China, specifically territorial disputes in the South China Sea?

Aquin0:  What we are saying, basically, is that there is an agreement called UNCLOS — the United Nations Convention on the Law of the SEA — and all of us are signatories to it.  I think it is very clear. Nobody is really interested in going to a violent conflict to try to resolve this. I hope they understand that I am duty bound to protect the interests of my country, just as they are protecting theirs.

When you appointed a new head of the Armed Forces, you told him to look out for ‘external threats.’ Were you referring to China? 

We have quite a significant number of countrymen who are overseas workers. In Libya alone, we evacuated something like 20,000 individuals. In Korea, when there was a flare-up last year, we had 50,000 people that we had to get from close to the DMZ down to Pusan and we have one C13 aircraft, one ship that can take 1000 people.  There has to be an increase in their capabilities, so they can address the concerns of roughly about 30% of our labor force. That is what I really meant to say.

How do you see the U.S.’s renewed engagement with Asia?

Well, we welcome them. They  have been one of our staunchest allies. They have capabilities that enhance our capabilities. For instance, they have excess military equipment that no longer meets their needs, but presents a quantum leap for us. The [U.S.] coast guard cutter actually significantly increased our capabilities.  They help us address our needs without giving [our neighbors] any sense of added nervousness.

Wouldn’t an increased number of ships worry your neighbors?

Look at the type of ship [we have]. The main armament for the coast guard cutter is a cannon, 76 mm cannon, which is not the biggest cannon. It’s not a missile frigate, for instance. Even the control craft we are looking at would not be meant for blue water operations, but rather to serve more precisely the needs of our country.

But isn’t the era of American interference in Southeast Asian affairs over?

They have been very careful to keep on explaining that there is no turning back the clock. There are new realities, but the issue of freedom of navigation is important for a country that represents a third or a half of the global economy. And I think that is in everybody’s interest—increased trade, correct trade, will improve the lot of everybody.

More: Can Noynoy Aquino Save the Philippines?