Barely a week after returning from his relations-repairing state visit to Beijing, which he dubbed a success, President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines has directed the release of $118 million in order to “enhance the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ capability to secure the territory of the Philippines…including providing a strong security perimeter for the Malampaya Natural Gas and Power Project (MNGPP),” a gas-extraction field that provides half of the principal island of Luzon’s energy.
Significantly, the money has been charged against revenues from the MNGPP; in other words, the security of the MNGPP is deemed under enough of a threat that funding for these acquisitions will come straight from the money the MNGPP makes. It also bears mentioning that this supplements the $1 billion already slated for the Philippines military modernization program, dubbed the Capability Upgrade Program.
Funds will be used to acquire six multipurpose helicopters, enhance various coastal surveillance systems, and construct an air force hanger in the province adjacent to Palawan. In addition, Aquino plans to purchase two more Hamilton-class cutters from the U.S. over the next two years, thereby building upon the momentum gained from christening the Philippines’ first U.S. cutter as its navy’s flagship.
The unspoken purpose of this acquisition is to counter Chinese claims and provocations in the South China Sea. After all, against whom else would the Philippines need to protect its interests? Although Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and Taiwan also have claims in the South China Sea, none of these countries’ vessels have fired live rounds at Filipino fishermen, severed Philippine oil survey cables, and harassed Philippine ships in disputed areas, sometimes mere miles from the Philippines coastline. The guilty culprit, on at least nine separate occasions in 2011 alone, is China.
Yet the Philippines cannot defend its territory without U.S. assistance. With the largest ever U.S. delegation currently attending the Pacific Islands Forum, the U.S. is once again demonstrating its commitment to Asia, building trust and stimulating dialogue with our partners across the region. However, there are also more concrete steps that the U.S. can take to ensure regional stability.
First and foremost, the U.S. should continue to protect and emphasize freedom of navigation in the Pacific, in the South China Sea, and elsewhere. With upcoming budget cuts, it is imperative that Washington understands the vital role our forward-deployed military plays in ensuring regional stability by protecting these waterways and asserting freedom of the seas.
Next, the U.S. should clearly stand by its security commitments to the Philippines. As argued in a recent Heritage paper, the U.S. should strengthen the U.S.–Philippine alliance by providing the armed forces of the Philippines with the means to defend itself through the discounted sale of excess defense articles and lend-lease programs, by supporting the Philippines in the ASEAN Regional Forum and other multilateral institutions, and by finding new areas of military cooperation, including—consistent with the Philippines’ constitution—new uses for Subic Freeport.
Finally, President Obama should meet one-on-one with President Aquino during the Philippine leader’s visit to Washington in late September. Unconfirmed reports indicate that Obama will not be able to meet Aquino privately due to Obama’s campaign schedule. If true, it will be a damaging signal to the region about the seriousness of U.S. engagement.
By increasing funding for its arms acquisitions and military modernization plan, the Philippine leadership is once again demonstrating its seriousness in protecting its territorial sovereignty. America’s aid to its ally has long been predicated upon the Philippines also contributing its fair share. Now that President Aquino’s commitment can no longer be in doubt, the U.S. should step up to the plate and uphold its end of the bargain.