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Beijing’s recent actions to extend its naval presence in the South and East China Sea, coupled with a perceived reluctance to solve territorial claims, is seriously undermining security among its neighbors, especially in the Philippines. Last year, in the waters Manila refers to as the West Philippine Sea, China’s occupied the Scarborough Shoal, just 124 nautical miles off the Philippine coast, which resulted in a tense stand-off with Philippine vessels. The Philippine vessels were forced to withdraw from the area, and the Shoal came under Beijing’s control. The recent commissioning of China’s first aircraft carrier, purchased from Russia and refurbished, set off further alarms, as did reports of the domestic construction of another carrier. Meanwhile, Beijing has sought to stymie regional negotiations over the South China Sea Code of Conduct proposed by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ (ASEAN), which seeks to resolve the prolonged territorial disputes on a multilateral basis with Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and the Philippines over competing claims for the underlying oil and gas deposits in the South and East China Seas. China’s foreign minister Wang Yi recently stated the accord needed more work, and China is due to host talks between ASEAN senior officials in September.
Beijing’s actions have Manila preparing for the worst. Last week, the Philippines took possession of a former U.S. Coast Guard ship, a 46-year-old Hamilton-class cutter renamed the BRP Ramon Alcatraz, the second warship of the Philippine Navy which will be used to patrol areas of the South China Sea near the Philippine coast. The Ramon Alcatraz was delivered free of charge under Washington’s foreign military financing program, although Manila spent around $15 million to upgrade its weapons and radar systems. The Alcatraz is the Philippine Navy’s second largest vessel after another decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutter, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar was donated by Washington in 2011. The Gregorio del Pilar had patrolled the disputed waters last year at the Scarborough Shoal, and was one of the vessels forced to withdraw.
The addition of the Alcatraz is part of the Philippines biggest military upgrade in decades, as a stronger economy affords the defense spending needed to counter China’s own growing defense spending and assertiveness. The Philippine economy grew 7.8 percent in the first quarter of the year, the fastest in Asia. Despite the military upgrade, the Philippine military is still regarded as one of the weakest in Southeast Asia, due to its previously weak economy and two long-running insurgencies by Maoist and Muslim rebels. President Beningno Aquino is determined to “erase the image” of a poorly equipped military, after the failure of the past three administrations to implement a 330 billion peso ($7.6 billion) spending plan passed in 1995, following the Chinese occupation of the Mischief Reef. Aquino won congressional approval to extend the plan 15 years and spend $1.7 billion to upgrade the military over the next five years. Under the plan, the armed forces expects to purchase radars, surveillance planes, fighters, and helicopters in order to properly spot, monitor and prevent intrusions over its vast maritime borders. Manila has also opened talks with South Korea to purchase a dozen new fighter jets and two frigates, and has also ordered 10 coast guard ships from Japan and three vessels from France. Washington has also increased its military assistance package next fiscal year from $30 million to around $50 million — the highest level since U.S. troops returned to the Philippines in 2000. The Philippine military has also revived plans to build new air and naval bases at Subic Bay, which could be used by American forces. Talks are underway this week to allow U.S. Forces visitation rights intended to boost the Philippine military’s capabilities to maintain maritime security.
Some may argue the Philippine military build-up is overdone, and specifically targeted at China, which will add unnecessary tension to the South China Sea dispute. Further, they argue the military expenditures are not needed, given the vast military capability of its strongest ally, the United States, which acts as a deterrent to external threats. Others may argue Manila is merely pandering to its masses, who are increasingly fearful of the rising dragon next door. According to the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitude Project, more than two thirds of Filipinos say China’s increasing military might is a bad thing. Further, ninety percent of Filipinos say territorial disputes with China are a big problem, compared to 82 percent of Japanese and 75 percent of South Koreans. But with its panicky militarization and paranoid population, the Philippines could yet be the place where the first sparks fly in a battle among nations over the resources of the South China Sea.