30 Maret 2011
Spratly islands (image : GlobalBalita)
MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines plans to acquire patrol ships, aircraft and an air defence radar system so it is better able to guard its territory in and near the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, the country's military chief said Monday.
China, the Philippines and four other countries and territories claim all or parts of the Spratlys, which is believed to have vast oil and gas reserves, teem with rich fishing grounds and straddle one of the world's busiest sea lanes. They have long been regarded as a potential flash point for conflict in Asia.
Military chief Gen. Eduardo Oban said it remains uncertain when the massive funding for the acquisitions, initially estimated at about $181 million (8 billion pesos), could be made available, but the government has asked the military to submit a list of equipment needed to strengthen territorial defence in Palawan, the southwestern Philippine province nearest the Spratlys.
At least $700,000 (31 million pesos) could soon be disbursed for the repair of a worn-out airstrip on Pag-asa, the largest island occupied by Filipino troops in the contested Spratlys, Oban said.
"We're pushing for capability development to safeguard our interests," Oban told reporters.
Philippine defence and military officials reportedly called off a trip to Pag-asa using a C-130 cargo plane because of the dangerous condition of the runway.
Spratly Islands (image : Middleburry)
The 120,000-strong military, one of Asia's weakest, has long faced funding shortfalls.
In recent years, it has focused on combating decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies instead of external defence. "We have not given this enough attention," Oban said, adding President Benigno Aquino III's administration has seen the need to now bolster military presence in Palawan near the contested region.
Two Chinese patrol boats allegedly harassed a Philippine oil exploration ship into leaving a vast area called the Reed Bank on March 2, prompting a Filipino general to deploy two military aircraft, which arrived at the scene after the Chinese vessels had left, the military said.
The Philippines protested, saying the Reed Bank, which is near the Spratlys, lies within Philippine territorial waters. China responded by saying that the Spratlys and adjacent waters belong to it.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told an Association of Southeast Asian Nations regional security forum in Vietnam last year that the peaceful resolution of disputes over the Spratly and Paracel island groups was in the American national interest. Her remarks angered Beijing, which accused Washington of interfering in an Asian regional issue.
Washington worries the disputes could hamper access to one of the world's busiest commercial sea lanes.