Today, upon inspecting the Philippine navy’s newest flagship, the 115-meter Gregario del Pilar, Philippine President Benigno Aquino declared that the ship “symbolises our newly acquired ability to guard, protect, and if necessary, fight for the interests of our country.” Vice Admiral Alexander Pama of the Philippine navy went further in expressing that the new flagship “symbolises the revival of the Philippine navy.”
It is hard to believe then, after hearing such lofty praise, that this new flagship is actually a refurbished former U.S. Coast Guard vessel that was built in 1965 and has seen some 44 years of service. Sounds meager until you consider that it replaces a U.S.-built destroyer that has been in use since 1943.
The changeover in flagships points to the Philippines’ urgent need for maritime defense capability. It has to start its modernization somewhere, and developing an ability—however nascent—to more regularly patrol Philippine-claimed waters in the South China Sea is the best place to start.
U.S. officials can learn two important lessons from the enthusiasm that greeted the introduction of the Gregario del Pilar. First, the Philippines is fully committed to improving its territorial defense. Second, the U.S.–Philippine alliance remains extremely relevant in preserving stability across the Asia-Pacific.
Despite historically dedicating its security policies toward countering domestic separatism, President Aquino’s government realizes the danger posed by continued Chinese adventurism in the South China Sea. Since February, Chinese military vessels on several occasions have harassed Philippine fishing boats and energy survey ships in waters mere miles from Philippine territory.
China has vociferously defended its claim to the entire South China Sea, referred to by Chinese leadership as its “blue soil,” and recently unveiled its first aircraft carrier. President Aquino, in unveiling his new flagship so soon before his state visit to Beijing next week, is sending a strong message to Beijing that the Philippines will not be bullied so near its own shores.
Earlier this month, The Heritage Foundation released a report entitled “U.S.–Philippines Partnership in the Cause of Maritime Defense,” and U.S. policymakers would do well to heed its recommendations and stand by the U.S.–Philippine alliance.
First, beyond the pressing need to fully fund its own Navy, the U.S. should prioritize the Philippines to receive excess defense articles. The fanfare that greeted a Vietnam War–era Coast Guard vessel should remind the Pentagon that the Philippines operates an aging fleet of less than 80 ships; therefore, any excess ships would have a tremendous effect on ensuring regional stability.
Second, the U.S. should explore various lend-lease programs to provide the Philippines’ armed forces with the hardware it needs to maintain a sufficient defense capability. Finally, the U.S. should continue to offer support to the Philippines by reaffirming our mutual defense obligations and ensuring freedom of navigation across the region.
On August 30, the U.S. and the Philippines will celebrate the 60th anniversary of their alliance. In continuing to provide the Philippines with the means to protect its territorial integrity, the U.S. should ensure that the alliance can continue to flourish for the next 60 years.