Noy mulls submarine force for Philippine defense

Jaime Laude - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – As the Chinese military continues to tighten its hold on vast areas in disputed waters, the Philippine government is considering building a “submarine force” as a deterrent to Beijing.

President Aquino made the pronouncement yesterday at the Publish Asia 2016 opening ceremonies, even as he stressed that nothing is concrete yet.

He said the realization that the Philippines is a “natural transit point into the Pacific” has led him to “study whether or not we do need a submarine force.”

In recent years, China has been expanding its control over large areas in the West Philippine Sea – by deploying warships and coast guard vessels as well as by building artificial islands, in the process destroying coral reefs and other marine resources.

Last year it was reported the Philippines would buy electric and diesel-run submarines as well as an advanced missile system as part of the modernization of the armed forces.

“I probably should stop talking about what we are doing to enhance (defense capabilities), but the bottom line is, this situation does call upon us to devote a lot more resources than previously,” he told a global gathering of newspaper and news publishing industry players.

“Also, it has necessitated us to have this as one of the priority issues that has to be tackled as far as foreign policy is concerned because it does significantly impact on our own developmental efforts,” the President said when asked about the increasing military cooperation between the Philippines and Japan.

“It does impact currently the lives of our fisherfolk who have been fishing in these waters for eons,” he said, apparently referring to China’s barring Filipino fishermen from waters it now controls.

“It does impact the economies to which these fisherfolk of ours are engaged in. Hence, there is that need to finally resolve this matter or, at least, accelerate the process of resolving this matter to the benefit of all parties concerned,” he said.

He stressed the Philippines could lose its west coast if it allows China’s maritime claims to remain uncontested.

But despite the government’s resolve to contest Beijing’s expansive maritime claims, it entertains “no illusion” about engaging China or any nation in an arms race, much less in waging war.

Aquino emphasized nonetheless the need for an accelerated modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

“If you look at representations of the so-called nine-dash line, you will note that, as far as the Philippines is concerned, we practically lose the west coast... we’re left with the east coast,” the President said, noting the islands and facilities being built by China in the disputed areas were also causing too much environmental impact.

“It does matter to us. We are supposed to have a 36,000-kilometer coastline. We are supposed to have an EEZ (exclusive economic zone) of 200 (nautical miles) stretching from those baselines. And suddenly, we are (going to) lose about half if we agree to this position (nine-dash line),” Aquino said.

UNCLOS not war

But despite the challenges, the President said the country’s peaceful efforts have been well received and documented, especially when he raised the issue before members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in 2012.

Aquino noted it was already the 10th anniversary of the region’s attempt to come up with a code of conduct in the South China Sea. What the ASEAN came up with in 2002 was a non-binding declaration, he said.

“I think all countries...realize that war is a futile exercise… nobody stands to gain and, in fact, the whole world stands to lose if it does amount to war,” the President pointed out.

“The Philippines, for instance, renounces war as an instrument of foreign policy, that is embedded in our Constitution,” he said.

“We have no illusions of ever trying to match or trying to engage anybody in an arms race or in a military buildup,” Aquino said, adding his administration would rather devote its resources to the “butter side” or the needs of the people rather than to weapons.

“Stability has to come about when there is clarity as to each one’s entitlements rather than what one wants to assert out of national interest,” he said, pointing out the Philippines and China were both signatories to UNCLOS.

The President said even those far from the South China Sea must realize the importance of stability to ensure smooth trade and greater chances for prosperity.

“And that it’s no longer a question of whether one possesses more economic might or more military might, but rather what is it that is embodied in the laws that govern all of us that we should be religiously adhering to? So if that situation is wrought then we manage the crisis, we bring down the tensions and we avert any potential for any conflict,” he said.

The President said he is grateful to countries that have expressed support for the Philippine position on the West Philippine Sea issue.

“And we are glad that our voice has been heard and the voice of others who are similarly situated has been noted and there has been positive movements towards resolving this particular crisis,” Aquino said.

Moving on

On ASEAN’s failure in 2012 to issue a joint statement on the matter due to opposition from Cambodia as summit chair and ally of China, Aquino said “we are not upset” and that he had told his counterpart Prime Minister Hun Sen that the Philippines was trying to understand their situation.

“I keep calling him ‘my friend.’ We understand. Whenever one engages in dialogue – and I think I learned this from both my parents and my professors – we would want to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes if we really want to achieve any level of a dialogue,” the President said.

“If all we want is just to expel air and shout at each other, that can be done but it doesn’t lead to any fruitful dialogue,” he pointed out.

“To have a fruitful dialogue, you have to understand where the other person is coming from. You have to ask for that which is possible and not expect the impossible; and that’s where you move forward,” he said.

“So, categorically, we have no issues with Cambodia or its government. At the same time, we hope that by the same token that we try to understand their situation, they also understand our situation,” the President said.

Beijing has reclaimed more than  1,174 hectares (2,900 acres) 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.

This year, China’s proposed defense spending of 954 billion yuan or $147 billion is about 59 times that of the Philippines.

With the Philippines unlikely to match China’s military might, buying submarines would not solve the country’s dispute with China, said Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University.

“Aquino should be realistic. He needs force to counter force,” Lim said, adding the Philippines should reopen dialogue with China.

“A submarine will be a very expensive investment, and it may not address the problem in the most reasonable way,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Department of National Defense (DND) has sealed a P5.36-billion deal with AgustaWestland Limited for the supply of two AW-59 anti-submarine helicopters for the Philippine Navy.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Stefano Bortoli, senior vice president for sales and strategic sourcing of AgustaWestland Limited, signed the purchase contract at Camp Aguinaldo on Tuesday.

“After more than four decades of aspiring to improve its capability, our Navy has found optimism in this anticipated acquisition of a new state of the art equipment and weaponry to address the requirements of anti-sub-surface naval operations,” Gazmin said after signing the contract.

“With the eventual availability and utilization of these new air assets, our navy can conduct operations with a high degree of confidence and reliability,” he said.

The two anti-submarine helicopters are scheduled for delivery 900 days after the signing of the Notice to Proceed.

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