The just ended standoff between China and the Philippines over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea is a painful reminder of Manila’s maritime weakness.
On April 10, sailors from the Philippine Navy warship Gregorio del Pilar attempted to arrest Chinese fishermen inside the Scarborough Shoal, which both Manila and Beijing claim. Two Chinese government vessels intervened and blocked the arrest. Shortly thereafter, Manila pulled the Gregorio del Pilar away from the shoal and sent in a smaller vessel instead as more Chinese ships and aircraft arrived.
Despite being the Philippines’ biggest warship, the 3,200-ton-displacement Gregorio del Pilar is dangerously under-equipped for a confrontation with the Chinese navy and coast guard, which combined comprise one of the world’s largest maritime forces. Gregorio del Pilar is a former U.S. Coast Guard Hamilton-class vessel commissioned in 1967 and transferred to Manila last year. In U.S. service, she was armed with cannons and machine guns, but the Americans removed most of the heavier weapons before transferring the vessel.
Manila’s armed forces have long suffered from a lack of investment. Against China’s hundreds of warships and thousands of warplanes, The Philippines can offer up only a token force. Bold pronouncements regarding planned military modernization rarely result in actual acquisitions of new hardware. The biggest naval initiative on Manila’s near horizon is…the transfer of up to two more Hamilton-class ships from the U.S. Coast Guard. The “new” ships will no doubt be as lightly armed as the Gregorio del Pilar.
“Clearly from our point of view, the Philippine Navy is not ready for combat duty even with their newly-acquired vessels!” one Filipino columnist lamented. It’s hard to argue.