The Philippines’ Great National Security Challenge (and it’s NOT China)

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The Philippines’ Great National Security Challenge (and it’s NOT China)

While Beijing’s recent actions are a concern, corruption plaguing the armed forces maybe the real challenge.

The Philippines’ weak defense capabilities were made painfully evident during its maritime dispute with China in the South China Sea earlier this year.

Even President Benigno Aquino III conceded the inferiority of the country’s military force in his state of the nation address last July. “Some have described our Air Force as all air and no force. Lacking the proper equipment, our troops remain vulnerable even as they are expected to be put in harm’s way. We cannot allow things to remain this way,” Aquino said.

Aquino went on to promise to upgrade the country’s defense capabilities in order to ensure the Philippines’ security and sovereignty. Spefically, he announced that the 21 UH-1H helicopters, 4 combat utility helicopters, rifles, mortars, mobile diagnostic laboratories, and station bullet assemblies purchased by his government will be delivered this year. He added that 10 attack helicopters, 2 naval helicopters, 2 light aircraft, one frigate, and air force protection equipment will arrive sometime next year. This is in addition to the old Coast Guard Cutter that the Philippines bought from the United States last year.

Many foreign military analysts support a stronger and more modern Filipino military given the need to balance China’s growing military presence in the Asia-Pacific. 

Filipinos are naturally supportive of the plan to improve their country’s security capabilities. At the same time, people are demanding accountability for the billions of pesos the government has already used as part of its two decade-long project to modernize the military that began in the early 1990’s. They point out that funds to buy new weapons have always been available but a huge amount of these precious taxpayer dollars have been wasted on official corruption. They are worried that current public support to strengthen the country’s armed forces will merely serve to enhance the personal wealth of corrupt generals and politicians.  

Their concern is valid considering that corruption involving generals and retired military officers has been exposed in the Senate. It was revealed, for example, that during the last administration a U.S. $55 million grant from the United Nations to finance the Philippine peacekeeping forces had gone missing. A former military comptroller is accused of stealing at least $7 million from state coffers. Furthermore, a former budget officer exposed the “military tradition” of giving generous cash gifts to retiring officers. 

Recently, 10 officers of the Philippine National Police were fired and charged with graft for brokering a deal to purchase two second-hand Robinson R44 Raven aircraft allegedly owned by the husband of the country’s former president at a cost of $820,000.

Police are also investigating allegations that the country’s former Interior Undersecretary, Rico E. Puno, an old friend of the current president, overpaid for some 60,000 pistols designated for national law enforcement officials.

Critics are asking if there are more insidious corruption practices waiting to be unearthed inside the military and other security forces. At a minimum, they are seeking redress for the foul deals that have already been discovered. 

In short, the backward status of the Philippines’ armed forces is in no small part due to the years of collusion between the military’s top brass and their patrons in the civilian government. There is no question that the country urgently needs to improve its military hardware. Nonetheless, this should not come at the expense of transparency in all the transactions. 

Mong Palatino is President of the Kabataan (Youth) Party and a member of the House of Representatives in the Philippines. He is a regular contributor to The Diplomat's ASEAN Beat blog.