MANILA/WASHINGTON – The Philippines may invest in its first ever submarine fleet to help protect its territory in the disputed South China Sea, President Benigno Aquino III said Wednesday.
The impoverished nation, which has never before operated submarines and until now relied on U.S. surplus ships, has been ramping up its defense spending in response to China’s military expansion in the region.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea — home to some of the world’s most important shipping routes — despite conflicting claims from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Aquino said the Philippines could lose its entire west coast should China succeed in enforcing its claims.
“We’ve had to accelerate the modernization of our armed forces for self-defense needs,” Aquino told reporters in Manila.
“We are a natural transit point into the Pacific and we are now studying whether or not we do need a submarine force,” he said.
Beijing has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of land from the South China Sea in less than two years in an intensive island-building campaign, and has deployed surface-to-air missiles on a disputed island there, according to Taipei and Washington.
China’s military significantly dwarfs that of the Philippines, despite Aquino’s efforts to boost defense spending to record levels and the acquisition of new warships and fighter jets.
This year China’s proposed defense spending of 954 billion yuan ($147 billion) is approximately 59 times that of its small neighbor, which stands at 115.8 billion pesos ($2.5 billion).
The Philippines has turned to its longtime ally the United States and former wartime foe Japan to boost its military hardware in order to counter China.
A senior official of the U.S. Defense Department said Tuesday that Japan is in talks with the Philippines about participating in joint drills with the United States on a regular basis.
Amy Searight, deputy assistant secretary of defense for South and Southeast Asia, was referring to the Balikatan joint exercises the U.S. and Philippine militaries conduct near the South China Sea.
“Japan is talking to the Philippines about a status of forces agreement, so that Japan can regularly participate in those kinds of exercises,” Searight told a think tank event in Washington.
The envisioned agreement would govern the operations of the Self-Defense Forces in the Philippines.
“Japan is participating (in the Balikatan drill) as an observer. Japan very much wants to participate more,” she said.
Manila has also asked a United Nations-backed arbitration body to declare China’s sea claims as illegal, with a ruling expected later this year.
China did not participate in the arbitration hearings at The Hague, citing its sovereignty over the area.
Aquino said the South China Sea dispute “concerns every country” since it could disrupt trade in the busy shipping lane, through which about a third of the world’s oil passes.
“The uncertainty breeds instability. Instability does not promote prosperity,” he said.
But while the Philippines is fortifying its defenses, Aquino, who will step down in June when his single six-year term ends, said that as an impoverished nation the government would prioritize “butter rather than guns.”
“We have no illusions of ever trying to match, trying to engage anybody in an arms race, or in a military build-up,” he said.