Maritime Security in the South China Sea

by Craig Snyder*

Philippines Military Capability

Unlike Malaysia or Vietnam, the Philippines military does not possess any real capability to fight in the disputed area. In the past, the government of the Philippines has not committed large amounts of resources to defend its claims to sovereignty over the Islands. Instead, it has relied on its Mutual Defence Treaty (MDT) with the United States to protect Filipino interests in the area. While the MDT does not specifically cover the Spratlys, Filipino decision makers have relied upon the unwillingness of any rival to risk a potential clash with the United States should it attack Filipino positions in the Spratlys. With the withdrawal of the United States Navy and Air Force from their bases in the Philippines in the 1990s, there was a great concern that the level of American interest in the South China Sea had also diminished and with it much of the Philippines' ability to defend its sovereignty in the area. 

The Philippine Navy and Air Force are small and equipped with outdated equipment and weapon systems. The Philippine Air Force has fewer than 15 F-5 fighters. The navy has almost no ability to patrol the disputed area as its ships include only one US Cannon class frigate and some 13 old, offshore patrol craft, all of World War Two vintage. In 1995, following the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef, the Philippine Navy transported members of the international media to the vicinity of the reef, but the warship carrying these reporters broke down on the return voyage and had to be towed back to port. The Philippines has only a limited maritime surveillance capability in one Fokker F-27M aircraft.56

Following the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef the Philippines' Parliament passed a law that authorized the spending of 50 billion pesos (about US$2 billion) to upgrade the armed forces. The law called for the development of the Navy's war fighting capabilities, including surface, amphibious, anti-air, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities. In addition, the Navy's sea-lift, transport, and maritime surveillance capabilities were to be upgraded. The Air Force was also allotted funds to purchase surveillance aircraft as well as multi-purpose fighter/attack aircraft.57 

In December 1996, a second bill was passed in the Congress allotting a further 164.5 billion pesos (US$6.3 billion) to modernize the military over the next 15 years. The Congress, in passing the bill, issued a statement expressing its hope that this would increase the capability of the Philippine armed forces to a "level where it can effectively and fully perform its mandate to uphold the sovereignty and preserve the patrimony of the nation." To date not much has come from the arms modernization bills as the need to fight the Abu Sayyaf terrorist forces in the south has drained much of the defence spending in the Philippines.58

In the short term, the Philippines has also tried to garner direct American support. The then-foreign secretary of the Philippines, Raul Manglapus, argued in a 1992 press conference following a meeting with the American ambassador to the Philippines, Frank Wisner, that the Americans were obliged to defend the Philippines if it was attacked in the Spratly Islands. He stated that the Mutual Defence Treaty "provides that a Philippine ship is an extension of Philippine territory and . . . [therefore] the United States is obligated to defend our ships." The United States refutes this claim stating that the treaty only covers the territorial limits of the Philippines as they existed when the treaty was signed. Moreover, the treaty does not bind the Americans to use military force to defend the Philippines in any case.59

56. Cloughley, "ASEAN at Arms," p. 22; and, IISS, Military Balance 2003-4, pp. 167-69, 307.

57. "Ramos Signs Military Modernization Law," Agence France Presse, 23 February 1995.

58. "Philippines' Ramos Hails Passage of Military Modernization Bill," Agence France Presse, 15 December 1996.

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