Military spending spree in the
Philippines By Al Labita
MANILA - China's rising assertiveness to
claims over the contested Spratly Islands has
spurred the Philippines to ramp up a long-overdue
upgrade of its external defense capability.
Manila's move signals an impending arms race in
the increasingly volatile region.
month, Philippine President Benigno Aquino's
government will begin bidding for some 70 billion
pesos (US$1.8 billion) worth of military
contracts, the initial outlay of a 500 billion
peso budget for a five-year modernization of the
125,000-strong Armed Forces of the Philippines
Over the past months, ranking
defense and AFP officials have
traveled abroad to sound
out possible foreign arms suppliers, including
vendors in Great Britain, France, Italy, Poland,
Russia, South Korea and Spain.
even said to be considering communist-ruled
Vietnam, a rival in territorial claims to the
Spratlys, for the commercial supply of a fleet of
fast-moving maritime patrol craft which Hanoi has
developed with the aid of Russian technology.
The Philippine government will tender a
total of 138 contracts for brand new naval and air
assets, including fighter jets, attack
helicopters, long-range patrol and transport
aircraft, warships, air defense radar and other
state-of-the-art armaments to boost the country's
territorial and maritime defenses.
bulk of the acquisitions will be earmarked for the
air force and navy, both as currently configured
ill-equipped against China's growing military, the
world's third largest after the United States and
To kick off the acquisitions, the
AFP has sealed deals to buy eight brand-new Sokol
multi-purpose attack helicopters from Swidnik of
Poland, four of which have already been delivered.
Under a newly revised defense framework,
the AFP has restructured its organization and
orientation - from fighting decades-old communist
and Muslim rebellions to external defense
vis-a-vis China's rising assertiveness in the
South China Sea.
Army battalions, trained
by US Special Forces in counter-insurgency, are to
be retrained as territorial defense units, while
the para-military police bear the burden of
tackling still potent internal security threats in
the form of armed rebel groups.
US has pledged to help the Philippines build a
minimum, credible defense system in the face of
China's rising threats in the Spratlys, Manila is
not entirely relying on Washington, opting as well
to tap its own resources in a self-reliance
Over-dependence on the US's
regional security umbrella is arguably one reason
why the AFP has grown stagnant, lagging behind its
counterparts in the region in terms of funding,
armaments and other logistics.
aid has likewise declined as the Philippine share
of the US's foreign military sales (FMS) to its
strategic allies in Asia dropped from a high of
70% in 2006 to only 35% this year.
hope this is not indicative of the priority placed
on the Philippines as a regional partner, as even
non-treaty allies appear to be getting a bigger
share of the FMS allocation," Philippine Foreign
Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a recent
speech at the Heritage Foundation think-tank in
Del Rosario was referring
apparently to Washington's decision last year to
transfer 24 ex-US Air National Guard F-16 fighter
jets, categorized as "excess defense articles", to
Indonesia, which has no formal defense treaty with
the US. The Philippines, with which the US has a
mutual defense treaty dating to 1951, had been
lobbying for the same warplanes.
Helping hands Nonetheless,
Washington agreed to provide Manila with $30
million in FMS this year, double the initial 2012
allocation of $15 million and up significantly
from the $11.9 million allocated last year.
The political opposition in Manila,
however, sneezed at the amount, describing it as
an "insult" to a now financially sound yet
militarily inadequate Philippine government, which
recently lent a whopping $1 billion in credit to
the International Monetary Fund.
were the Aquino government, I would say 'thank
you,' I do not need your $30 million. We can
provide that $30 million for ourselves," says
Philippine Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile.
Other domestic critics have assailed
Washington's habit of freezing a portion of the
promised FMS on allegations of state-sponsored
political killings and human rights violations.
While the government has been at pains to
address the abuses, leftist groups have kept them
in the spotlight as part of a wider nationalist
strategy to oppose a resurgence of US military
influence in its former colony.
military bases are barred in the Philippine
constitution, a legal impediment the US has
skirted through revolving deployments of troops
and trainers. There is widespread speculation the
US would increase military sales in exchange for a
more permanent footing in the country.
Other countries such as Japan and
Australia have offered to help strengthen the
Philippines' maritime patrols, but like any
foreign aid the exchange has been subject to
rigorous bilateral negotiations.
promised assistance is tied to the stringent
conditionalities of its official development
assistance, while Australia's hinges on Manila's
approval of the so-called Status of Visiting
Forces Agreement (SOVFA).
debate in the opposition-led 23-member Philippine
senate, SOVFA is similar to the US-Philippines
Visiting Forces Agreement which allows American
troops to hold "war games" on Philippine soil.
Recent joint US-Philippine exercises have been
conducted near contested maritime territories.
China has assailed the Philippines big
ticket military acquisition plans, warning the
procurements would further escalate prevailing
tensions in the Spratlys. The two sides recently
mutually backed away from a two-month standoff
over the contested Scarborough shoal in the
"Once (the Philippines) dares
escalate the movements of maritime police into
military operations, it will suffer a great
calamity from China's strike in response to their
attack," said Major General Xu Yan, an official of
the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) National
Defense University, according to news reports.
Ironically, China has a long-standing $12
million loan offer to enable the Philippines to
buy Chinese-made weaponry. That, however, is now
in limbo due to rising tensions sparked by their
conflicting claims to the potentially
Those tensions and
planned arms acquisitions threaten to spark wider
regional tensions. For example, state-linked
Chinese commentators recently warned Japan against
supplying the Philippines with patrol ships.
"As Japan is already engaged in a dispute
with China over the sovereignty of Diaoyu Island,
aiding the Philippines in its territorial disputes
with China in this way could dramatically escalate
tensions in the region," said a commentary
published by China.org.cn.
various veiled threats to go to war over the
Spratlys, the Philippines has refused to be drawn
into such a scenario, exhausting all possible
diplomatic and political means to resolve their
overlapping claims to the chain of isles and
Some analysts believe the
Philippines is playing a double game to buy time.
While engaging Beijing in behind-the-scenes
dialogue, Manila is also building up its external
defense posture, with or without significant US
succor, to counterbalance China.
strategy that obviously risks provoking China into
staking its maritime claims by force while it has
the strategic upper hand, and in the process draws
the Philippines into a wider proxy war driven by
regional powers keen to contain China's regional
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