VIENTIANE – The Philippines is proposing a 14 percent increase in defense spending next year to buy new ships and aircraft to boost its fight against Islamist militants and enhance maritime security in the disputed South China Sea.
According to internal documents seen by Reuters on Monday, about 130 billion pesos ($2.8 billion) or 96 percent of the proposed defense budget will go to the armed forces.
The push to beef up military spending reflects regional concern about China’s maritime assertiveness and the new government’s determination to crush the entrenched and lucrative network of the Islamic State-linked Abu Sayyaf rebels behind a spree of kidnappings.
Some 25 billion pesos will go to a modernization program, the Department of National Defense said in the documents, including the acquisition of two surveillance planes and six close-air support planes to fight Abu Sayyaf.
The rebels, who have their stronghold in two southern islands in the Muslim-majority south, are holding more than 20 hostages of five nationalities.
Abu Sayyaf has this year beheaded two Canadian hostages and President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the military to “destroy” the group. The government believes it was behind Friday’s bombing in Davao City that killed 14 people.
The government has proposed a 3.35 trillion peso national budget for next year, which the bicameral legislature is expected to approve before the end of the year.
A senior defense official said 2017 will be the second year in a row that the government is spending 25 billion pesos for the modernization plan, which is slated to cost 82 billion pesos over a five-year period.
The country is set to award contracts for two frigates for the navy and three radar systems for the air force, which are designed to improve monitoring in the South China Sea.
Part of the funds will go to installments to pay for 12 South Korean-made FA-50 jets, two of which arrived last year.
Last month, Manila took delivery of one of 10 Japanese patrol vessels provided by official development assistance to improve Manila’s maritime capabilities.
In addition to the patrol vessels, Japan has agreed to lease up to five Maritime Self-Defense Force TC-90 training aircraft to Manila.
The Philippines has long complained about China’s aggressive assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea and its driving away of Filipino fishermen from Scarborough Shoal and its deployment of energy-surveying ships at resource-rich Reed Bank.
The two features are within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, based on the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
After seeking international arbitration in 2013, in July the Philippines successfully debunked China’s “nine-dash line” claim to nearly the entire South China Sea, and also received legal affirmation for its fishermen, as well as those from other nations, to fish around Scarborough Shoal.
The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague also criticized China for causing massive damage to the marine environment in the waters through its reclamation and construction activities on some of the disputed features.
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