Manila. Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed on Tuesday a stronger military defense of his country’s South China Sea claims as the navy’s newest warship sailed into Manila Bay from the United States.
“This ship symbolizes our newly acquired ability to guard, protect, and if necessary, fight for the interests of our country,” Aquino said as the refurbished Hamilton-class cutter Gregorio del Pilar dropped anchor.
“This is just the beginning. Expect more good news because we will not stop at one ship.”
Aquino said the former US Coast Guard cutter, now the Philippine navy’s flagship vessel, would protect the country’s exclusive economic zone and its oil and gas exploration activities in the South China Sea.
“This will upgrade our capability to guard our exclusive economic zone as well as the (oil and gas) service contract areas,” he said in a welcoming speech.
Many of those areas are claimed by China, which insists it has sovereign rights to almost all of the South China Sea, even waters approaching the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.
Other parts of the sea, which is reputedly rich in mineral resources and straddles vital sea lanes, are also claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The competing claims have for decades made the sea one of Asia’s most dangerous potential military flashpoints, and tensions flared this year after the Philippines and Vietnam accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive.
The Philippines said the Chinese navy had fired warning shots at Filipino fishermen in the South China Sea, harassed an oil exploration vessel and put up markers on Philippine islets.
As the row escalated, the Philippines appealed to longtime ally the United States for help in beefing up its poorly equipped military, with Aquino saying his country could not contain China on its own.
The Philippine navy has an old and badly equipped fleet of fewer than 80 ships to protect its coastline and vast marine interests.
The navy’s chief hailed the 115-metre (378-foot) Gregorio del Pilar, which replaces a World War II-era destroyer as the country’s flagship vessel, as a timely boost to the Philippines’ military power.
“She now symbolises the revival of the Philippine navy,” Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said at Tuesday’s welcoming ceremony.
“The Gregorio del Pilar’s ability to operate in adverse conditions… will be vital in securing our maritime nation’s territory and asserting our sovereignty in areas where our capability is now seriously needed.”
But even the “new” ship — acquired under a mutual defence treaty that gives the Philippines access to decommissioned US defence equipment — first went into operation in the United States more than 45 years ago.
And the Philippine military’s budget of about $2.5 billion this year is just a fraction of China’s published defence spending about $90 billion.
Manila clinched the deal to acquire the Gregorio del Pilar — named after a Philippine revolutionary hero who fought the Spanish and died in combat against American forces — early this year, before the tensions with China flared.
The United States has since promised to help upgrade the Philippine military further, but no details have been released.
China’s state-run media this month warned the Philippines it could pay a “high price” for building up its military presence in the South China Sea.
However bilateral ties remain strong in other areas, and Aquino will pay a state visit to China next week.