SUBIC BAY - This week the United States and Philippines launched military joint exercises in the South China Sea. With a newly signed military agreement between the treaty allies, the Philippines, which is locked in a dispute with China over territorial claims in the sea, is now heavily focused on beefing up its maritime capabilities.
This year’s exercises include the Philippines’ two newest and biggest warships. Philippines fleet commander Rear Admiral Jaime Bernardino said the country is dealing with various “threats” at a time that its “modest” military upgrade is taking shape.
Bernardino said the Philippine troops need to train hard and get their ships ready. He said the decades-old former U.S. coast guard cutters are “purposely being put to the test” now that they have been converted into frigates.
“You see these ships? Their capability [is] to detect aircraft, to detect submarines, to detect surface assets and [to] try to board and search,” he explained.
The frigates, docked at the former U.S. naval base in Subic, are being retrofitted with machine guns and have brand new companion helicopters from Italy that officials say will serve as a second set of eyes from above. Bernardino says the helicopters will also be able to land on other ships, delivering crews to search for contraband onboard.
Lieutenant Rommel Rodriguez is Philippine Navy spokesman for the exercises known as CARAT (Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training). He regularly participates in the joint training and says he has seen a marked difference with being able to use the new hardware.
“These helicopters are able to scour the vast sea in a very quick span of time giving the information and coordinates to operating ships in the area, which gives us more efficiency. It lessens our operating expenses so it’s more efficient,” explained Rodriguez.
Officials say they are focused on better monitoring the surrounding seas. The Philippines, with a $1.9 billion military budget in 2014, is focused on building up its “minimum credible defense posture” in the face of China’s growing assertion of its claims in the South China Sea.
China, which said it is spending $132 billion on the military this year, claims practically the entire sea, based on ancient maps and historical records. In recent months it has been carrying out land reclamation activities on several outcroppings, which officials suspect will support military activity. The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also have claims in the waters, believed to hold vast oil and gas reserves.
Half of the Philippines armed forces are land-based, while about one quarter are sea-focused and the other quarter, air. In a country whose military attention for decades was on insurgency and internal rebellion, making the shift to protecting sovereign rights has meant modernizing, and doing it quickly. Two years ago, President Benigno Aquino announced a $1.7 billion boost for the military modernization program, spread out over five years.
Security Analyst Rommel Banlaoi heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. He said the recently signed military agreement between the U.S. and the Philippines will give a strong boost to maritime abilities.
“Through joint and military exercises with the United State, the Philippines also expects transfer not only of skills but also of some technologies, particularly surveillance technologies,” said Banlaoi.
The agreement covers increased U.S. troop visits, additional joint exercises, storage of American materiel and American-built facilities within Philippine bases.
But Carl Baker with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies says for now, the Philippines might do better to focus on policing the waters rather than securing them. “It comes to be a matter of disputants claiming legal rights and the Navy isn’t the right organization to enforce those rights in territorial waters,” he said.
The Philippines has placed an order for 10 coast guard vessels from Japan that it expects to receive by 2017.
This year’s joint naval exercises are taking place in waters just south of Scarborough Shoal, where in 2012 a months-long standoff between the Philippines and China ended with China taking control of the shoal. The rich fishing spot lies about 225 kilometers west of the Philippines and some 400 kilometers from China.
Officials say training in the vicinity of the shoal is routine.