Aquino promises to bolster military 

The Chinese navy is unlikely to be overly concerned at the arrival of the US-made M113A2 armoured personnel carriers in the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia 

Philippine President Benigno Aquino says the armed forces will be stronger and more capable to challenge China over the South China Sea when he leaves office next year. 

Aquino, who cannot run again for the presidency under the constitution, promised to spend about 84 billion pesos (US$1.77 billion) in the five years preceding 2017 to strengthen the military as China reinforces its claims to the disputed sea. 

The military budget was only approved this year so most of that money will be spent in the coming months.

“We’re planning to acquire new frigates, strategic sealift vessels, long-range patrol and close air support aircraft and other equipment,” Aquino said at the 80th anniversary of the armed forces which enabled him to view newly acquired hardware. 

Although the new hardware is due to protect “territorial” concerns, he did not mention the South China Sea specifically.

“I have personally witnessed how the military grew stronger and more effective in preserving peace and stability, the key in building confidence in the Philippines,” he said. 

A strategic sealift ship, being built in an Indonesian shipyard, will be delivered early next year and an Israeli-made radar will be completed by 2017, when all the fighter jets from South Korea are due to be delivered.

He said the US and Japan were helping develop the military as “some countries” had increased defence spending amid rising tension in the South China Sea.

China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which US$5 trillion in trade passes every year. The Philippines has challenged Beijing at the arbitration court in The Hague, although Beijing has not recognised the case.

Aquino said 56.8 billion pesos had been spent since 2010 on a squadron of fighters from South Korea and Italian combat helicopters. Washington has presented Manila with two former coast guard cutters and transport planes.

The Philippines’ 125,000-strong military lags behind other Asean members and appears to have woken relatively late to the treat posed by China. 

The Philippines occupies a 37-hectare island and a few shoals and reefs in the South China Sea. But it has been unable to prevent China from expanding deeper into its territory. Beijing took the Mischief reef in 1994 and Scarborough shoal in 2012.

The Philippine navy is regarded internationally as barely seaworthy and its air force is mostly made up of Vietnam-war-era planes and helicopters.

Military spending has been a defining feature of Aquino’s presidency and he is buying fighter jets, transport planes, helicopters, frigates, patrol boats, armoured troop carriers, firearms and radar kits. Long-range reconnaissance planes are also due to arrive in 2017.

“We have changed our armed forces’ image. From an army neglected through a decade of government lies, deceit and thievery, we now have a modern, better-prepared and more dependable fighting force,” Aquino said.

The first batch of FA-50 lead-in fighters arrived this month of 12 that Manila ordered from Korea. Those jets were on display at the military parade along with other new hardware. 

Six Agusta Westlands AW-109 helicopters and dozens of US-made M113A2 armoured personnel carriers have also just arrived. 

Last month, US President Barack Obama pledged a third Coast Guard cutter and a research ship.

Tokyo, meanwhile, is said to be in talks to supply three Beechcraft TC-90 King Air planes. These might be followed by used Lockheed Martin submarine-hunting P3-C patrol planes.

In comparison, China earlier announced a defence budget of about US$140 billion for this year.

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