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Duterte Promised To Modernize The Philippine Military

May 30, 2018

The Philippine Navy has two Tarlac-class sealift vessels, which are transports made by an Indonesian shipyard.

In what amounts to a sudden pivot from his undeniable fondness toward China, President Rodrigo Duterte used the 120th anniversary of the Philippine Navy for setting the record straight. During his speech at a historic venue in Manila, Duterte told his audience that he really wanted to assert the Philippines’ claim over the Spratly Islands.

Duterte’s sentiments were echoed a week later by his foreign minister Alan Peter Cayetano. According to Secretary Cayetano, a political ally who ran as Duterte’s vice president during the 2016 elections, any attempt at extracting resources in Philippine waters without Manila’s consent is a declaration of war.

During his speech in Manila on May 22, a Tuesday, Duterte made sure to emphasize how much he cared for the country’s territorial rights. Duterte then told the audience the geopolitics of the South China Sea simply doesn’t favor the Philippines. “I cannot afford at this time to go to war,” he said.

“I really want to do something to assert [our claims],” he added. “I would have taken a stronger but probably a more violent way of doing it…in my own estimation it would be a great loss to the nation and [we] would probably end up losing a war.”

“It’s geopolitics,” Duterte said. “I cannot rely just on one nation and country to defend us and maybe to help us in our hour of need.”

Towards the end of his rambling address, which touched on various topics like his foreign policy and “war on drugs,” Duterte mentioned the Philippine Navy’s modernization efforts during his time in office. “Since the beginning of this administration,” he said. “I have exerted efforts to upgrade your equipment and artillery, which now include two units of TC90 aircraft, two multipurpose assault craft, and one strategic sealift vessel.”

Duterte also revealed the coming budget for the Philippine Navy is larger than usual, totaling Php 77 billion. When converted to US dollars with today’s exchange rate ($1=Php 52.66) the amount is worth $1.46 billion. This proves the Department of National Defense (DND) is fulfilling the Revised AFP Modernization Program by assigning more funds to the air force and navy; the two branches tasked with territorial defense.

Another highlight is a deal with Jordan for the transfer of surplus AH-1E Cobra gunships, which he described as “those things we cannot afford.” Duterte said just two are being delivered and he didn’t confirm when these are arriving. The DND has actually been negotiating with Jordan for decommissioned equipment since the previous decade but even these are subject to US export controls. The arrival of AH-1E Cobras will partially fulfill the air force’s requirement for attack helicopters to augment its fixed wing aircraft.

The full transcript for Duterte’s remarks during the 120th anniversary of the Philippine Navy can be found at the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

Yet even if its leader insists on a tougher approach to the South China Sea crisis, there’s little Manila can do about the brewing rivalry over the disputed waters. A mere five days after Duterte addressed the Philippine Navy a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea by two US warships drew Beijing’s ire. In a statement published by the Ministry of National Defense (MND), the PLA made it clear that any foreign naval vessels sailing near Woody Island in the Paracels are provoking war.

A PLA spokesman insisted the actions of both the USS Antietam and USS Higgins were unacceptable because these “undermined mutual trust” and “damaged peace and good order in relevant waters.” The same spokesman followed up with a veiled threat by stating, “The Chinese military is unshakably determined to strengthen its naval and air combat readiness, raise defense level, safeguard national sovereignty and security and maintain regional peace and stability.”

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