The Philippine foreign secretary says his country wants to buy American weaponry to shore up defense. But although the two countries have worked closely together on security over the past 70 years, costs and broader security worries will make any arms hard to get, experts in Asia caution.
Secretary Teodoro Locsin told a news conference in Manila that he and visiting U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo had discussed the “vital support” of the United States for Philippine military modernization. Mutual defense, he said, “should cover a partner’s back as well as its front.”
Locsin later tweeted that he hopes the U.S. government will sell weapons to “re-arm our military” for self-defense.
But the Philippines may not be able to afford complex new weapons systems, while U.S. officials would worry that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte might use them in his deadly anti-drug campaign, experts believe. Duterte for his part might not want any new U.S. hardware to upset a 3-year friendship with China, which has its own differences with the United States.
“The geopolitical issue, that’s one, second is the limited funding as well as security concerns when it comes to sourcing equipment,” said Collin Koh, a maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “So, in a way it limits the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines).”
The U.S. Arms Export Control Act governing foreign sales is what one political consultant called for this report “a minefield of intricacies and legalities.” For that reason, scholars say, the U.S. government sells its new, high-end arms such as aircraft largely to long-term partners such as Australia, Singapore and Taiwan.
Those partners know the Act, can pay the billions of dollars for new equipment and do not turn the weapons on their own people. Sales sometimes irk China as its navy expands onto the high seas, but Chinese leaders are used to the repeat customers.
The anti-drug campaign may raise questions in the United States about “human rights” issues, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school. Human rights groups say anti-drug police have killed thousands of people without due process.
China hopes the Philippines, a rival claimant to sovereignty in the sea between them, will ease away from the United States as part of a Sino-Philippine friendship that included China’s pledge in 2016 for $24 billion in aid and investment.
“If you sell one or two ships to the Philippines and the Philippines buys it, what signal does that send to China, that the Philippines is an un-loyal and unreliable neighbor and partner?” Araral said. “For the Philippines, you don’t want to send the wrong signal to China.”
In Southeast Asia, only Singapore has the formula down for getting U.S.-made weaponry, said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Singapore buys American fighters, helicopters and drones. Officials in Vietnam, he noted, have looked into buying American-made arms but fear they might get turned down, he said.
American lawmakers may worry Manila would use weapons “recklessly,” Thayer said.
“There’s no one there, leaving Singapore out, where you have a well-established relationship that would run smoothly, and where there is none it hits the bumps in the road," he said.
Smaller, used and donated arms
Manila and Washington have lived by a mutual defense treaty since 1951, followed by a visiting forces agreement in 1991 and ongoing joint naval exercises. U.S. officials count the Philippines as an Asian ally useful for containing China’s maritime expansion – also a reason Manila wants to upgrade its navy in case its relations with Beijing someday sour.
Washington also has sold the Philippines pistols, assault rifles, ammunition and rocket launchers since 1980, according to a Federation of American Scientists research paper.
Small arms used for anti-terrorism work or coast guard patrols normally cause little political concern, scholars note.
The database GlobalFirePower.com ranks the Philippine military strength No. 63 out of 137 countries. Ex-president Benigno Aquino kicked off a military modernization program that called for two new frigates or warships, but domestic media said last year a special assistant to Duterte had “intervened” in the deal to acquire those from a builder in South Korea.
Philippine officials may need to keep depending on small, donated, refurbished arms for low-key use, and not just from the United States, Koh said. Foreign sellers are already obliging. In 2017 South Korea donated a corvette warship to the Philippine navy, and last year an Australian shipbuilder said it would deliver six offshore patrol vessels.