Philippine court expected to decide U.S. security deal is constitutional: source

By Manuel Mogato MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippine Supreme Court is expected to decide that a new U.S.-Philippine security agreement is constitutional and will announce its ruling before President Barack Obama visits Manila next week for an Asia-Pacific summit, a source said. The deal gives U.S. troops wide access to Philippine military bases and approval to build facilities to store fuel and equipment for maritime security, but it was effectively frozen after left-wing politicians and other opponents challenged its constitutionality last year. The expected ruling comes amid growing tension between the United States and China over Beijing's island-building in the disputed South China Sea. "I have seen the draft (ruling). The court will uphold its constitutionality, denying the petition to declare it unconstitutional," said a court source who declined to be identified. The source said the Supreme Court's 15-member panel still needed to discuss the matter on Tuesday. If no decision was announced at that session, it would happen on Nov. 16 when the court next convened, the source added. Obama will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila on Nov. 18-19. The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) was signed just days before Obama last visited Manila in April 2014. Supreme Court spokesman Theodore Te declined to comment. A senior government official told Reuters the government expected a ruling before the APEC summit. "I am very confident the Supreme Court will favor us," said the official. Last week the court source had said the decision would likely come next year, but one Philippine political expert, Rommel Banlaoi, said the court probably acted to avoid political complications due to Philippine elections next May. "The court is probably worried politicians will use EDCA as an election issue, so it made the decision now," said Banlaoi. "If the court decides the agreement is constitutional, it will be a big victory for President (Benigno) Aquino. It cements the strong security alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines. U.S.-Philippine military ties are already robust. Philippine military officials say there has been an increase in U.S. exercises, training and ship and aircraft visits in the past year under Obama's "rebalance" to Asia. But the EDCA would take the relationship a step further, partly by giving U.S. forces broad access to the Philippines. (Writing by Dean Yates; Editing by Will Waterman)