By Manuel Mogato and Stuart Grudgings
MANILA, July 2 (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino said on Monday he may ask the United States to deploy spy planes over the South China Sea to help monitor the disputed waters, a move that could worsen tensions with its giant neighbour China.
The two countries only recently stepped back from a months-long standoff at the Scarborough Shoal, a horseshoe shaped reef near the Philippines in waters they both claim. The United States has said it is neutral in the long-running maritime dispute and China has warned that "external forces" should not get involved in the dispute.
"We might be requesting overflights on that," Aquino told Reuters in an interview, referring to U.S. P3C Orion spy planes. "We don't have aircraft with those capabilities."
Last month, Aquino pulled out a lightly armed coast guard ship and a fisheries boat due to bad weather around the Scarborough Shoal, a group of rock formations about 140 miles (225 km) w es t of the main Philippine island of Luzon.
The South China Sea is potentially the biggest military flashpoint in Asia, and tensions have risen since the United States adopted a policy last year to reinforce its influence in the region. At stake is control over what are believed to be significant reserves of oil and gas.
China said last week it had begun "combat-ready" patrols in waters it said were under its control in the South China Sea, after saying it "vehemently opposed" a Vietnamese law asserting sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly islands.
"WE HAVE A LOT OF NEEDS"
Aquino said he had not decided whether to send Philippine ships back to the disputed shoal and had called a cabinet meeting for Thursday to discuss the issue and overall relations with China.
"We'll discuss the whole issue of the relationship with China and I would like to get the advice of my advisors," Aquino told Reuters in a wood-panelled reception room in the Malacanang presidential palace.
Manila has been looking to its old ally Washington for ships, aircraft and surveillance and equipment as the United States refocuses its military attention on Asia. Manila has offered Washington greater access to airfields and its military facilities in exchange for more equipment and frequent training.
Aquino met with U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington in early June. In August last year, the U.S. Pacific Command made an initial offer to deploy the P3C Orion spy planes to the Philippines and help monitor disputed areas in the South China Sea after China increased its presence and activities near Reed Bank. The Pentagon offered to share real-time surveillance data with the Philippines while seeking wider access to airfields in its former colony in Southeast Asia.
"We have a lot of needs," Aquino said. "For instance the coast watch system - we have 36,000 km (22,000 miles) of coastline. We don't have radar coverage for all of this."
Aquino also said he would not object to an increased "rotational tempo" for U.S. military forces in the country to help train their Filipino counterparts.
Aquino said China should not be alarmed by Philippines efforts to improve its monitoring capability.
"Does the Philippines have the capacity to become an aggressor," he asked. "By any stretch of the imagination, the Philippines does not have. So why should it upset a superpower if we're all reasonable?" (Reporting By Stuart Grudgings, Manny Mogato and Rosemarie Francisco. Editing by Jason Szep)