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    Southeast Asia
     Jul 6, 2012

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.

Next 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 (AFP).

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.

Manila is 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.

The 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 Russia.

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.

Though the 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 policy.

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.

US security 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.

"We 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 Washington.

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.

"If I 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.

Foreign 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.

Tokyo's 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).

Currently under 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 archipelago.

"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 resource-rich Spratlys.

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.

Despite China's 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 islands.

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.

It's a 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 ambitions.

Al Labita is a Manila-based journalist

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

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