(Adds background, details on possible agreement)
By Tim Kelly
TOKYO, June 5 (Reuters) - The Philippines and Japan are to start talks on allowing Japanese military aircraft and naval vessels to use bases in the Philippines for refueling and picking up supplies, enabling them to extend their patrol range deep into the South China Sea, Philippine President Benigno Aquino said.
"We will be starting discussion on this," Aquino said at a press conference in Tokyo on Friday during a state visit to Japan.
Japan is considering joint air patrols with the United States in the South China Sea, sources told Reuters in April, in response to China's increasingly assertive push for influence as it builds air strips and other man-made islands in the disputed waters.
A Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), would clear the way for the Japanese military to use Philippines' bases on a rotational basis, similar to the way the U.S. does now. An ability to refuel close to the South China Sea would allow Japan's Self Defense Forces to keep their aircraft on patrol longer and cover a greater distance.
The decision to start talks on a VFA was not included in a joint statement on Thursday after Aquino met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The two leaders, however, discussed the VFA and agreed to open up negotiations, a source with knowledge of the meeting told Reuters. He declined to be identified because he is not authorized to talk to the media.
Aquino's trip comes as the two countries deepen their security ties. Unable to match the scale of the Chinese fleet, Manila is looking for allies in its territorial spat with China. Tokyo is concerned that Chinese land reclamation projects in the South China Sea will expand Beijing's influence in a region through which about $5 trillion of sea-borne trade passes annually, much of it heading to and from Japan.
In an interview in January, Admiral Robert Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, told Reuters that Washington would welcome Japanese air patrols there because their presence would provide a stabilizing counterweight to a growing fleet of Chinese fishing and naval vessels. (Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Chang-Ran Kim and Rachel Armstrong)
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