Philippines upgrades defense in South China Sea
MANILA -- The days of unarmed Philippine soldiers in the disputed Spratlys are over.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III announced his government will buy more military equipment to strengthen the country’s armed forces’ capability in the South China Sea, a move seen largely to counter China in the disputed islands.
In his second State of the Nation address before the Philippine Congress, Aquino referred to an old anecdote about Philippine Marines cutting coconut trees, painting them black and aiming them at enemies in past stand-offs in the islands. “True or not, that time is over. Soon, we will be seeing capability upgrades and the modernization of the equipment of our armed forces,” he said.
Aquino noted that the nation’s first Hamilton-class cutter, bought from the U.S. Coast Guard as a second-hand patrol and supply ship, is on its way to the Philippines. Expected to arrive later this month, the ship will patrol near the country’s first offshore natural gas project near Palawan in the South China Sea.
“We may acquire more vessels in the future — these, in addition to helicopters and patrol crafts, and the weapons that the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Philippine National Police and the Department of Justice will buy in bulk to get a significant discount,” Aquino said.
The Philippine government also is planning to restructure a Joint Maritime Force (Sea-Air) to carry out missions in the South China Sea to help protect vital resources and sea exploration activities, according to a technical report from the Office of the President. At the same time, the government will revive the Air Defense Organization, shelved in 2006 because of lack of aircraft, to focus on the airspace in western Philippines.
Ready to respond
Aquino recalled the time when the country couldn’t appropriately respond to threats in its own backyard. “Now, our message to the world is clear: What is ours is ours. Setting foot on Recto Bank is no different from setting foot on Recto Avenue,” he said in his address before the Philippine Congress.
Recto Bank, known internationally as Reed Bank in the Spratlys, is where two Chinese patrol boats chased away a Philippine oil exploration ship on March 2. Recto Avenue is a major thoroughfare in capital Manila. Philippine officials earlier asserted that Reed Bank is part of the Philippines and not among those in the disputed Spratlys. The chain of islands, islets, reefs, banks and shoals believed to be rich in oil and natural gas are claimed wholly or in part by the Philippines, China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Without mentioning specific countries, Aquino said the Philippines does not wish to increase tensions with anyone, “but we must let the world know that we are ready to protect what is ours.”
He added that his administration is studying the possibility of elevating the territorial dispute to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, “to make certain that all involved nations approach the dispute with calm and forbearance.”
Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam also protested last May and June when it claimed China cut the cables of its two seismic survey vessels 80 nautical miles off its coast, well within Vietnam’s territorial waters.
Legislators support Aquino
Aquino’s statements on the Spratlys drew the most applause from legislators. In the Malaya Business Insight interviews, Sen. Panfilo Lacson, chairman of the Senate defense committee, and Sen. Franklin Drilon, chairman of the finance committee, threw support for Aquino, and said the president is correct in defending the country’s integrity.
While legislators welcomed Aquino’s statements, many said the more important task lay in seeking Congressional budget approval for the planned arms acquisition. “Modernizing the armed forces takes more than statements. It needs a budgetary allocation requiring the support of the Philippine Congress,” said Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.
Aquino submitted a PHP1.816 trillion [$43.084 billion] 2012 national budget proposal before Congress, with the Philippine Department of National Defense set to receive PHP107.9 billion [$2.55 billion].
On the same day, Aquino met with U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Robert Willard at the presidential palace. Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Aquino and Willard discussed general security and cooperation including concerns in the South China Sea.
Spratlys top foreign issue
The Spratlys issue appears to be Aquino’s topmost foreign policy concern. It is the only foreign topic he chose to discuss in his address, leaving out the issues of human trafficking and peace talks with communist and secessionist movements in Mindanao, both dealing with foreign intermediaries.
During the ASEAN Region Forum in Bali, Indonesia, in July, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States has a national interest in the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. She called for a peaceful resolution of the territorial dispute under international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Banlaoi said the tensions will lead to an increased interaction and enhanced security cooperation between the Philippines and the U.S. “The strength of Aquino’s foreign policy will be tested on how his government will relate to China and the U.S. to advance Philippine national interests,” he said.
Professor Renato de Castro of the International Studies Department of De La Salle University said the Philippines appear to be relying on the U.S. deterrence capability. De Castro also said that while the cutter is merely a modest acquisition, it nevertheless represent an effort of the Aquino administration to provide for the long-term requirements of the armed forces.
Richard Jacobson, director for operations for the Asia-based risk consultancy firm Pacific Strategies and Assessments, said only time will tell how serious the plan for equipment upgrade will be.
“Essentially, the Philippine Navy is too weak to effectively confront China militarily although it appears ready to acquire more military equipment from the U.S. to beef up Philippine military capabilities,” Jacobson said.
China trip planned
Jacobson noted that Aquino might simply be posturing on this issue, noting that the territorial dispute is just one facet of Philippine-China relations. He suggested that Aquino’s planned visit to China in the next few months is indicative of the quality of bilateral relations. “If the visit is postponed for any reason, that could signal increased strains in this bilateral relationship,” he said.
Jacobson added that while the Obama administration has traditionally tried to avoid taking sides in the territorial dispute, U.S. officials reiterated during a visit of Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to the U.S. last June its defense commitment to the Philippines, including a provision for weapons.