World Bulletin / News Desk
The Philippines took possession of a former U.S. Coast Guard ship on Tuesday, part of its biggest military upgrade in decades, as a stronger economy allows it to raise spending to counter China's growing assertiveness in disputed waters.
The military build-up, which is heavily focused on maritime capability, is likely to add to tension over theSouth China Sea that has threatened to draw in the United States as it refocuses its military attention onAsia.
President Benigno Aquino and senior ministers watched as the frigate, BRP Ramon Alcaraz, sailed into the Philippines' Subic Bay, a former U.S. naval base, after a two-month voyage from South Carolina, where its 88 Philippine crew trained for a year.
The 46-year-old Hamilton-class cutter, the second of its type the Philippines has received from its U.S. ally, will be used to patrol areas of the South China Sea near the Philippine coast that have become a major source of tension with Beijing.
"It's very clear - real growth is possible only if there's genuine stability and peace in our nation," Aquino said in a speech, adding the country needed to "erase the image" of a poorly equipped military.
Aquino is determined to modernise the navy and air force after three past administrations failed to implement a 330- billion-peso ($7.6-billion) spending plan passed in 1995, after the Chinese occupation of the half-submerged Mischief Reef.
But a weak economy and two long-running insurgencies by Maoist and Muslim rebels drained the country's funds and left it with one of Southeast Asia's weakest militaries.
When Aquino took over in 2010, just 10 percent of the 1995 plan's budget had been used.
He won congressional approval to extend the plan 15 years and spend $1.7 billion to upgrade the military over the next five years, helped by robust economic growth that hit 7.8 percent in the first quarter this year, the fastest in Asia.
General Emmanuel Bautista, head of the 130,000-member armed forces, said the ship would make "a big contribution" to efforts to secure Philippine territorial waters against intrusions.
"We want to improve our maritime domain awareness so that we know what is going on around us and also be able to respond to some contingencies," Bautista told Reuters in an interview.
"BRP Ramon Alcaraz is going to fill the gap between now and the delivery of new frigates," Bautista said, adding that the armed forces also plan to buy radars, surveillance planes, fighters, and helicopters under the $1.7-billion plan.
The military says the government needs to double its defence spending from 1.2 percent of GDP now, in order to properly spot, monitor and prevent intrusions over its vast maritime borders.
Until then, Bautista said, it was "practical" and "pragmatic" to allow a U.S. military presence in thePhilippines. "It is a deterrence against external threats," he said. "That's the order of the day now. Nobody stands alone."
The Philippines said last week that Washington had stepped up its military assistance package next fiscal year to about $50 million from $30 million, which would be the highest level since U.S. troops returned to the Philippines in 2000.
($1=43.6100 Philippine pesos)