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    Southeast Asia
     Mar 2, 2012

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Philippines builds anti-China muscle
By George Amurao

Last year, the government authorized the release of 4.9 billion pesos for this purpose. An estimated 423 million pesos were mobilized to purchase a retired Hamilton-class high endurance cutter from the US through the US Foreign Military Sales program. The 378-foot long cutter, formerly known as USCGC Hamilton, has been renamed the BRP Gregorio del Pilar (after the young Filipino general who was killed defending Tirad Pass against American soldiers in 1899). Displacing more than 3,000 tons with a maximum speed of 28 knots, the cutter will replace the Cannon-class Rajah Humabon as the Philippine Navy's flagship.

Though its surface search radar and Phalanx CIWS were removed before delivery to the Philippines, the cutter has undergone refitting and rearming to equip it for its patrol duties in the


Spratlys. The plan for securing Malampaya entails the procurement of three such vessels. The Hamilton's sister ship, the USCGC Dallas, will be decommissioned and turned over to the Philippine government in either the first or second quarter of this year. In December 2011, defense secretary Gazmin led a delegation to Washington seeking permission to purchase a third sister ship.

The AFP's modernization for external defense appears to be running along two parallel lines: weapons to be acquired under phase two of CUP and those funded by Malampaya project revenues ostensibly for use in securing the natural gas wells that are geographically close to the disputed Spratlys.

One defense analyst based in the Philippines noted that it was rather "fortuitous" that the Chinese chose to "act up just as Phase 1 - the ISO [internal security operations]-centric phase - ended". Indeed, the threat that China poses not only to isles and reefs in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines but also to the country's revenue-generating sites like Malampaya have proved to be a strong spur to the Aquino administration to fast-track and prioritize the acquisition of more modern weapons.

Though under CUP phase two the government plans to acquire just trainer aircraft for the LIFT program, as part of the long planned transition to multi-role combat aircraft, Aquino announced in December 2011 his intent to go one step further and purchase second-hand F-16 fighters from the US.

In January this year, the Department of National Defense (DND) announced 138 projects to modernize the AFP. No other details were given in regard to the source of funding (whether through the CUP allocation or revenues from Malampaya), nor did the DND give specific details as to what kind of aircraft or naval vessels and other equipment are on its wish list.

Air Force Vice Commander Maj Gen Renato Lorenzo Sanchez said 56 new aircraft and 23 refurbished ones will be purchased, along with high-tech gear like a 3-D radar system. His statement, however, implied that most if not all of the items targeted for acquisition will be for territorial defense: "By 2016, we shall have expanded our air space and maritime domain awareness and provided territorial defense capability."

Acquiring such weaponry, however, will not automatically lead to immediate combat readiness and attaining an external defense capability sufficient to offer deterrence vis-เ-vis China will take years. A good example of the time required can be seen in the training required to fly multi-role combat aircraft. Dzirhan Mahadzir, a defense analyst based in Kuala Lumpur, said pilot training in a modern fighter aircraft at the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) usually lasts one to three years, not including the time for training to be a regular pilot and later for lead-in fighter training.

The RMAF has a LIFT program in place and has operated multi-role combat aircraft for the past several years. In contrast, the Philippines has not had a fighter aircraft since 2005, when the F-5 was retired. (The PAF's S-211 is a trainer aircraft). To be fair, the quote from Maj Gen Sanchez implies that the armed forces recognize that it needs at least four years to play catch up.

Long-time ally
The Philippines' wild card appears to be its rejuvenated strategic alliance with the US - at least until it has the time to develop a strong indigenous territorial defense capability. For decades, the country enjoyed American protection, especially during the time when two of the biggest American military bases outside of the US mainland, Subic and Clark, were located in the Philippines.

US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, during their tour of the region last year, promoted a peaceful resolution to the competing claims in the Spratlys. The US government's actions, however, have expressed explicitly its intentions of making its presence strongly felt in the region to counter-balance China's rising military might and influence.

On one hand, Washington has engaged Southeast Asian countries through ASEAN, the East Asia Summit and other regional forums to assert its stance that the South China Sea should remain as a neutral sea lane in the region. On the other, it has recently strengthened military links with allies in the region, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines.

The US has renewed strategic ties with former Cold War era adversary Vietnam, symbolized most potently by the docking of the US Navy aircraft carrier USS George Washington last year at Danang naval base, which was held and used by the Americans during the Vietnam War. Washington also lifted its 10-year moratorium on material support for Indonesia's KOPASSUS commando unit due to its history of human rights abuses. The massive Cobra Gold joint military exercises between US, Thai and other regional troops have continued and expanded in recent years.

As a clear demonstration of support for its Philippine ally, the US Navy and Marines conducted an 11-day Cooperation Afloat Readiness Training (CARAT) military exercise at the height of the Spratlys crisis last year, this time off the coast of Palawan, just a few hundred nautical miles from the disputed territory. Several US warships also paid port calls to Manila in 2011 and so far this year. The US also announced it will soon deploy 2,500 US Marines to Australia, complementing America's berthing rights in Singapore for its naval ships.

It is often said that in international relations there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests. Though still smarting from its expulsion out of its two biggest military bases in the region in 1991 by the Philippine Senate, the US has a new common interest with the Philippines in the form of China's recent aggression in the Spratlys.

As the two allies tiptoe around the Philippine constitutional provision banning foreign military bases in the country, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) forged in 1999 has allowed the US to rotate some 600 troops, some of whom belong to elite special operations units, in southern Mindanao in pursuit of Washington's ongoing war on terror.

Now, the current crisis over the Spratlys has given both sides an excuse to work side by side in resisting China, despite protests from Philippine nationalists and leftists who fear the country could get caught in a crossfire should the US and China eventually clash. Analysts wonder up to what extent the US would help the Philippines if a shooting war broke out with China, particularly if the Philippine military was only strong enough to offer token resistance to China. It's also unclear whether the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 would cover an aggressor's attack against Philippine assets in disputed islands outside of the country's jurisdiction.

With the first phase of CUP now concluded and the second one in the works, how will the Philippines' defense infrastructure look in the near future? Strategic analysts already wonder whether the Aquino administration (and the next one) will have the political will and sufficient funds to sustain modernization efforts.

More important, they wonder whether the AFP will eventually be able to run independently a modern external defense system, or will history repeat itself and see the Philippines lapse back to dependency on the US for its own security and protection? Doubts are rising across the region whether the US could really deter China in a future shooting war.

As of now, the Philippines has taken initial steps to build a more credible military defense against China and other neighboring countries, not only for the bounty that the Spratlys offers but for its own territorial integrity. Building and maintaining the required support infrastructure such as enhanced air and naval bases, radar facilities and missile systems to support more modern air and naval assets, not to mention the extensive training of soldiers to manage these facilities, will take years to accomplish.

Until then, the Philippines will continue to rely on diplomatic ties with its regional neighbors and military links with the US to keep the Chinese dragon at bay.

George Amurao, a former journalist in Manila, until recently worked for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. He is now with Mahidol University International College in Bangkok, Thailand.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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