In this photo released by Malacañang Palace in Manila, President Benigno Aquino III, center, chats with visiting U.S. senators, former presidential candidate John McCain, R-Ariz., right, and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., during their courtesy call at the palace on Jan. 17.  (AP photo/Malacañang Palace Photo Bureau, Robert Vinas)

MANILA — American lawmakers have expressed confidence in the Aquino Administration’s reform agenda, Malacañang said.

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda quoted a delegation of U.S. congressmen led by Rep. Harold Rogers as telling President Benigno Aquino III that they can “attest to the fact that this administration is doing all it can to right the wrongs of the past.”

Rogers along with Representatives Norman Dicks, Ander Crenshaw, Tom Cole, Rodney Alexander, Steven LaTourette and Mike Simpson met with the President at Malacañang last Friday.

“The great strides that have been made in curbing corruption, fighting poverty, and promoting good governance — the achievements of the past one-and-a-half years — are only indicators of the changes that will continue to sweep the Philippines in the coming years,” Lacierda said.

Meanwhile, visiting American senators stressed the need to strengthen the Philippine military and expand U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific and its waters for peace in the region.

The lawmakers, led by Arizona Sen. John McCain, vowed not to allow China to exercise “disproportionate control” over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

The senators, including Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, are in Manila until Jan. 18.

They are set to meet with other government leaders.

‘Strong U.S. military presence needed in the region’

“I believe that the best way to make sure that we have peace in the region is with a strong military presence, strong alliances and a message being sent to everyone that the best way for every nation, including China, to achieve their goal is peacefully,” McCain said during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy.

McCain said he does not foresee a confrontation with China “if we maintain a strong military presence and strong alliances in the region such as we have with the Philippines that would lead to a peaceful region.”

“If there is indeed a withdrawal of the U.S. then I believe that that would mean a lessening of stability in the region,” McCain said.

“We don’t foresee a conflict or confrontation with China but we do believe it’s very necessary that we work very closely together and other nations, particularly ASEAN, to make sure peace and security prevail in this region of the world,” he added.

He said the world economy is shifting in Asia with the Philippines as one of the major leaders in the region.

However, McCain said the strengthening of U.S. military presence in the region does not include a return of U.S. bases in the Philippines.

“It doesn’t mean bases in the Philippines. I don’t believe those bases will ever return,” he said.

Lieberman for his part said the U.S. is committed to building up the militaries of its allies in the Asia-Pacific region and carrying out joint exercises.

“The fact is the waters here are critically important not only to the economies of the nations but to the economies of the world and we simply can’t allow one nation — in this case China — to exercise disproportionate control over these waters,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman said territorial claims should not be settled “by force or bullying.”

“We’re going to make sure to the best of our ability that they’re settled as a matter of negotiation, multilateral negotiation, and international rule of law,” he said.

In shifting U.S. attention to the region, the U.S. lawmakers said there will be an increase in air and naval assets and more joint exercises.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario earlier “invited” China to join the Philippines in validating the two countries’ territorial claims under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Del Rosario made the statement in reply to Chinese claims that the Philippine protest over the incursion of Chinese vessels on Escoda (Sabina) Shoal Dec. 11 and 12, 2011 are “baseless.”

The Escoda Shoal is located 123.6 nautical miles from Palawan and is within “Philippine sovereignty and maritime jurisdiction.”

The DFA conveyed on Jan. 5 to Chinese Embassy’s Charge d’affaires Bai Tian its serious concerns over recent actions of China in the West Philippine Sea.

Lacierda said the President was also expected to raise the issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea when he meets with McCain, a member of the U.S. Senate armed services committee.

He said the President would make “clarifications” on the Philippines-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty.

The President was also set to discuss the Save Our Industries Act that would allow Philippine made apparel using fabrics from the U.S. to enter the U.S. duty free.

The bill seeks to expand U.S. export of fabrics to Asian markets and generate export income for American textile manufacturers and provide thousands of jobs in the U.S. textile sector.

Lacierda could not say if the President would discuss with the visitors the bill on business process outsourcing (BPO) now pending in the U.S. Congress.

U.S. House Bill 3596 or the “Call Centers and Consumers Protection Bill” encourages American companies to farm out their non-core business within the U.S., a practice known as in-sourcing, and penalizes those dealing with overseas BPO.

The President earlier expressed hope that the proposed measure will not be passed.