By Mike Stone and David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. State Department has approved the potential sale of F-16 fighter jets, as well as Sidewinder and Harpoon missiles, to the Philippines in three separate deals with a combined value of more than $2.5 billion, the Pentagon said on Thursday.
The Philippines is looking for a new multi-role fighter jet and is evaluating the F-16 and the SAAB Abs Gripen.
The announcement comes as the United States seeks to renew an agreement with the Philippines governing the U.S. troop presence in the country, which is critical to Washington’s strategy to counter ever-expanding Chinese activity in Asia.
Last week, the Philippines again suspended for another six months a move to scrap the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that had been due to expire in August.
The Pentagon said the Philippines requested to buy 10 F-16C Block 70/72 aircraft and two F-16D Block 70/72 aircraft made by Lockheed Martin Co. That package, which includes spares and training, is valued at up to $2.43 billion.
Despite the State Department approval, the notification does not indicate that a contract has been signed or that negotiations have concluded. Often during a competition, the department will approve exports before a winner is named.
Eric Sayers, a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it appeared to be "a proactive effort by Washington to ensure the United States remains the security partner of choice for Manila."
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who has frequently condemned U.S. foreign policy while exploring closer ties with China, told Washington last year he was canceling the VFA amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a U.S. visa. But he has repeatedly suspended the expiration date.
Gregory Poling, maritime security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said one of Duterte’s complaints has been his perception that the United States does not provide high-quality equipment to the Philippines.
"I’d expect that the U.S. government will be looking for opportunities over the next six months to combat that perception," he said.
The Pentagon also notified Congress on Thursday of the possible sale of two missile packages to the Philippines.
One was for 12 Harpoon Air Launched Block II Missiles, two training missiles, spares and equipment made by Boeing and valued at up to $120 million.
Another was for 24 AIM-9X Sidewinder Block II tactical missiles, 24 training missiles and spare parts made by Raytheon Technologies and valued at up to $42.4 million.
The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA, which governs the rotation of thousands of U.S. troops in and out of the Philippines.
Having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defense of the Philippines, but strategically for the United States when it comes to countering China's increasingly assertive behavior in the region.
"The package is a serious step that will certainly get Beijing's attention," said Sayers.
Lockheed Martin said the F-16 would play a significant role in strengthening Manila's strategic partnership with Washington and allies, while enabling the Philippines to join other Southeast Asian F-16 operators.
(Reporting by Mike Stone and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)