Manila signals resolve on defence with news of fighter jet deal
If last week's move by Manila to challenge Beijing's territorial claims at the United Nations highlighted its legal and diplomatic intent, this week's announcement that it is poised to buy a squadron of fighter jets from South Korea shows its determination to create a meaningful strategic deterrent.
For years the Philippines' armed forces have been dismissed by military analysts as a joke, but the prospect of its first operational fighters in more than a decade is merely the latest in a string of recent acquisitions that are being closely watched in Beijing.
Philippine defence officials confirmed yesterday that Manila would this month finalise a US$443 million contract to purchase 12 FA-50 light fighter jets from Korea Aerospace Industries of South Korea.
Two planes could arrive within six months to be used for training - the first time in the best part of two decades since the Philippines had operable jet fighters, United States-made F-5s from the Vietnam war era. "They are not arming themselves to the teeth, but they are making up for years of atrophy," said Richard Bitzinger, a senior fellow at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "They've been floundering around for years with possible purchases, but now they are getting some things done - it may not be a credible deterrent yet, but it is at least a start."
The FA-50s can be used for a range of fighting and ground attack scenarios but are also considered a vital training platform if the Philippines pushes ahead with other possible purchases, including larger US F-16s.
News of the deal comes after a busy 12 months or so that has seen the Philippines move to acquire three ageing coast guard cutters from the US, three used frigates from Italy and 10 state-of-the-art coast guard ships from Japan under an aid project, doubling its current fleet. Deals are also in the works with France and Canada.
President Benigno Aquino has significantly expanded defence spending, vowing to overturn years of official neglect by creating a workable strategic deterrent.
While officials repeatedly insist that the build-up is not aimed at China, the moves come amid months of intensifying tension with China over the South China Sea, including the permanent stationing of Chinese ships inside the disputed Scarborough Shoal.
"The military upgrade is already a priority before our incident with China," said Aquino spokesman Edwin Lacierda.
Dr Ian Storey, a strategic scholar at the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies, said while the Philippines was clearly diversifying by buying from a range of sources, it would still please its main security ally, America.
"For years now, Washington has been urging the Philippines to rebuild and expand its military capability, so it will be music to American ears that this is starting to happen."