Accessibility links

Philippines Boosts Patrols Amid China Sea Dispute

  • Simone Orendain

Philippine Navy special operations group on board speed boats patrol off Subic Bay, facing South China Sea, Aug. 6, 2013.

Philippine Navy special operations group on board speed boats patrol off Subic Bay, facing South China Sea, Aug. 6, 2013.

The Philippines’ second Hamilton-class warship has arrived in local waters at a time of continuing territorial tensions in the South China Sea. Manila's military expansion program plans to build what the Philippines calls a “minimum credible defense posture.”

Under rainy skies and with much fanfare, President Benigno Aquino greeted the 115-meter cutter at Alava Wharf, near the former United States naval base. Aquino said the ship would guarantee patrolling of the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone, which borders its coastlines.

“[This ship] is strengthening the government’s military modernization program," he said. "And it is erasing the old image of a military that lacks equipment and makes things hard on personnel.”

The 46-year-old BRP Ramon Alcaraz is a second-hand Coast Guard cutter from the United States’ store of used military assets. It joins another used cutter that the Philippines bought from Washington in 2011. With refurbishing and retrofitting of remotely operated machine guns and other hardware, the Alcaraz cost the Philippines about $15 million.

In May, Aquino announced a $1.8 billion infusion to the country’s military upgrade program, which still places it behind some of the smaller defense budgets in the region.

The new hardware includes half a squadron or 12 fighter jets, two frigates and an air-surveillance radar system. Defense spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said the department wants these purchases to be completed before 2016 when Aquino’s term ends.

Galvez did not give specific details on the models and capabilities of the equipment. He also did not directly name China’s controversial patrols in the South China Sea as a reason for upgrading military capabilities. But defense officials’ plans for the warships clearly indicate they are likely to be sent to the disputed waters.

“If you have, for example some third party or other countries who do not respect your territory and go in there and get the resources that are in there, that’s technically stealing from you. So that’s where the defense comes in,” said Galvez.

In recent years the Philippines has complained of what it calls China’s “intrusions” into its claimed waters. Last year ships from the two countries faced-off at Scarborough Shoal, over alleged poaching by Chinese fishermen. In May the country filed a diplomatic protest citing the presence of Chinese surveillance ships and a frigate at nearby Second Thomas Shoal.

China said it has “indisputable sovereignty” over the resource-rich sea, while the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei have whole or partial claims to it.

Galvez said the military’s main concern is to have a minimum credible defense stance, and that means surveillance is a priority. “It may not necessarily mean a capability to use particularly lethal force, it may be as simple as having an eye or being able to have maritime awareness, maritime domain awareness or territorial domain awareness,” he said.

Christian Le Miere, senior fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, sees the Philippine military’s naval capability as very “low-base.” He said it falls short of providing a minimum credible defense. “Given the limited budget that the Philippines has and the very powerful adversary it faces, potentially in China, the best possible route for it to take would be to emphasize what’s known as sea-denial capabilities. That is those capabilities that aim to deny an adversary the use of the sea, rather than to control the sea itself,” Le Miere stated.

So far, many of the standoffs between China and the Philippines in the disputed sea have involved fishing ships or Chinese observation vessels - not military ships. Carl Thayer of the Australia Defense Force Academy said the Philippines militarization of the South China Sea carries risks.

“At the moment, China’s not using its military force, so it becomes what’s called ‘asymmetric.’ How do you deal with coast guard ships that are occupying Scarborough Shoal? And if the Philippines is using military ships, that’s sort of escalating it,” said Thayer.

The Philippine Coast Guard, which only has six functioning vessels recently announced it is purchasing five from France and it expects to acquire 10 Japanese patrol boats over the next three years.