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Defence & Aerospace

Philippines General seeks arms upgrade as China threat expands


Gregorio Catapang, Philippine military chief, speaks during the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) forum in Manila on Sept. 2, 2014.

Gregorio Catapang, Philippine military chief, speaks during the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines (FOCAP) forum in Manila on Sept. 2, 2014.

Philippine military chief Gregorio Pio Catapang likens his task to a boxing match. Dwarfed by neighbours like China, with whom ties are strained, he’d like his forces to last at least a few rounds in the ring.

“Even if we are a bantam-weight fighting against a heavy weight, we are going to defend our sovereignty and national interest,” General Catapang, 55, said in an interview in his office in Manila yesterday. “We renounce war as a national foreign policy, but we will have to stand and show the world we are a principled country.”

Sitting in his office surrounded by history, philosophy and psychology books Catapang, who has been in the job since July, sets out his priorities for an army that for years was occupied by an insurgency in the south. With China building artificial islands in the resource-rich South China Sea and boosting its naval presence to support its territorial claims, the focus for the Philippine military is turning outward.

Catapang is looking to boost defences in Ulugan Bay on the island of Palawan, the Philippine military post about 160 kilometres (99 miles) from the disputed Spratly archipelago. He’s also seeking lawmakers’ approval for about $10 billion to buy fighter jets and warships to achieve a “world-class armed forces” by 2028. China’s defence budget this year is about 47 times that of the Philippines’ 123 billion pesos ($2.8 billion) — 1 percent of gross domestic product.

Spratlys Dispute

The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea, and have been at the centre of sparring for decades, claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

China is carrying out construction on some islands and shoals claimed by the Philippines and plans to erect five lighthouses there. The Philippines has sought international arbitration over its disputes with China, a process that country refuses to join.

China is “projecting the image that they own the South China Sea, but it’s still under litigation,” Catapang said, adding he doesn’t view conflict with China as inevitable. “While it is being arbitrated, we want to show that we really own those islands. That’s why we’re putting the marines, the navy, the army in the islands that we possess.”

Modernisation Plan

Under the first phase of the modernisation plan which lasts until 2017, the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, will buy three frigates to take its stock to six, Catapang, who is responsible for 120,000 servicemen and women, said. The military plans to increase its squadrons to three from one and install a nationwide early warning radar system and air defence artillery, he said.

“The modernisation program is primarily focused on upgrading military capabilities, equipment and infrastructure,” Budget Secretary Butch Abad said in e-mailed comments. “It’s especially critical now, as the country faces threats to its security.”

Catapang, who is scheduled to retire in July next year, was an army commander who rose to become head of the Northern Luzon Command. In the 1980s, he joined the Reform the Armed Forces Movement, a group of junior military officers whose attempt to stage a coup against former dictator Ferdinand Marcos helped spur protests that led to Corazon Aquino, President Benigno Aquino’s mother, taking power.

The head of the military has traditionally been picked from among the most senior officials. The mandatory retirement age of 56 means most military chiefs serve for one to two years.

‘All Global’

As other countries focus on projecting power outward, building longer-range naval and air capacity, the Philippines too wants to be part of a “bigger community,” Catapang said.

“Twenty-first century wars will all be global,” he said. “Global terrorism, global climate change, global warming, global maritime concern, global transnational crime, and hopefully not, global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction like nuclear war. Those are what we’re preparing for.”

President Xi Jinping has sought to extend China’s reach since coming to power in November 2012, and the navy is modernizing and expanding its nuclear submarine base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, its gateway to the South China Sea. The Communist Party leadership has for the first time stated a national goal of making China a maritime power, with a more combat-ready military to bolster its territorial claims.

Source: Bloomberg – Outgunned Philippine General Seeks Arms Upgrade as China Expands
 
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About Craig Hill

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