This month, the Philippine Navy deployed its latest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. The vessel is a 46-year-old former U.S. Coast Guard cutter and, amidst the fanfare since Manila first acquired the vessel, the Benigno Aquino administration has also announced its intention to bolster the country’s maritime security capabilities.
The move seems aimed squarely at responding to ongoing tensions in the South China Sea, where increased Chinese assertiveness in disputed waters has prompted the Philippine government to vow to modernize its armed forces, particularly its navy. These tensions have spiked this year as Chinese vessels have harassed other ships in the region, including in March the Philippine government oil exploration vessel MV Venture off Reed Bank in the Spratlys.
The Reed Bank incident was closely followed by alleged Chinese aerial intrusions over Philippine-held territory in the Spratlys in May and June; during one such incident, a Chinese military plane was claimed to have buzzed and intimidated a Philippine fishing vessel operating in the area.
While military activities have since subsided, intrusions by Chinese fishermen have continued. In October, a Chinese fishing vessel was confronted by a Philippine Navy warship in waters off the Philippine-held Recto Bank in the Spratlys, upon which the Chinese vessel hastily released more than thirty dinghies it was then towing. This sparked a flurry of diplomatic activity in which Beijing curtly demanded Manila return the impounded dinghies.
With such activities in mind,Aquino has underscored his administration’s determination to bolster the capabilities of the armed forces to deal with external security threats. In public, of course, the Aquino administration has shied from openly fingering China as the primary motivation for its planned modernization. But under a 40 billion peso, five-year plan, the Philippine Navy is expected to see its share of the spending pie increase significantly.
Top of the wish list has been the acquisition of patrol cutters from Washington. Following the acquisition of the BRP Gregorio de Pilar, Manila is tipped to receive a second similar ship, and possibly a third, by early next year. There have also been plans for the Navy is to take delivery of a single locally-built landing craft and three multi-purpose fast attack craft (gun-armed). In addition, the three existing Jacinto class patrol vessels bought from the British in the 1990s have recently been sent for upgrades.
Still, despite its aspirations and its five-year plan, the Philippine Navy is high on ambitions, but likely low on the funding necessary to fully satisfy its wish list. At present, the Navy acquisitions are mainly funded by proceeds from the Malampaya offshore gas field operation, although if there’s a steady revenue stream from this and other planned offshore oil and gas sites the acquisitions may yet be realized.
The problem for the Aquino administration, though, is that it’s not just about the money. Of course, the Aquino government has taken a much more proactive stance in response to the perceived increase in Chinese activities in the South China Sea. In September, for example, Aquino issued Executive Order Number 57, an official policy that emphasizes maritime security. However, this approach isn’t fully endorsed by the armed forces, nor by some vocal lawmakers who continue to tout internal security as the most pertinent issue the military faces.
The lack of policy consensus within the Philippine government is a problem that has long plagued the country’s military modernization plans, which for decades have seemed to favor internal security advocates. Recent unrest in the restive southern Philippines may give this camp even more ammunition.
To compound matters, many within the defense and diplomatic establishments have opposed the beefing up of the Navy to safeguard the country’s South China Sea maritime interests, pointing out repeatedly that the Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington ensures the external security of the Philippines. As a result, there has been relatively little effort to revive interest in substantially overhauling the Navy’s capacity to address Philippine concerns in the region.
Indeed, the Army still enjoys the lion’s share of defense appropriations, reflecting the continued focus on internal security. The acquisition of the Gregorio del Pilar does little to change this, and although the vessel’s freshly-applied gray paint may disguise its age, this ageing warship can’t hide the fact that parts of the Philippine Navy are doing little more than rusting.
One of the problemsManila’s maritime security planning has faced is that it has tended to be reactive. Until the Mischief Reef incident in 1995, the Philippine government had adopted a rather ambivalent attitude towards maritime security, with the Navy accorded the lowest priority for funding.
But when the Chinese presence was discovered on Mischief Reef, the Ramos administration was galvanized to modernize the Navy, including the acquisition of better-equipped warships to provide a more credible deterrent against further Chinese transgressions in the Spratlys. Yet even then, the modernization plan was only implemented partially.
Modest armament plans, such as the acquisition of a quartet of missile-armed attack craft from Spain, came to nothing, as did last-ditch alternatives such as acquiring surplus Tarantul class missile craft from Russia. As a result, after much hype about the Philippine Navy finally seeing an end to decades of neglect, little came of Ramos’ plans. In contrast, the Philippine Coastguard has entered the fray in competing for scarce resources and has actually met with some success, thanks in part to funding from the Australian government.
As a result of the continued lack of neglect, the Philippine Navy has found itself virtually helpless in response to Chinese incursions. In June 1999, the BRP Sierra Madre ran aground in the Spratlys, and was then harassed by a pair of armed Chinese ships before a recovery operation was undertaken.
As some within the Philippine military have pointed out, while it takes years to build up a credible defense capacity, a crisis in the South China Sea could literally happen overnight. Yet without the requisite military capacity in place, there’s virtually nothing that the Philippines could do short of provoking war. Whether the Aquino administration has the stomach to tackle the challenge of bolstering the country’s maritime security remains to be seen.
Koh Swee Lean Collin is an associate research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in the Nanyang Technological University.