South China Sea remains a security challenge, Philippine defence chief says

Manila must boost military capability to meet ‘persistent maritime security challenges’, Delfin Lorenzana says as country receives three Japanese surveillance planes

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 3:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 March, 2018, 11:02pm

The territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea remained a security challenge despite an improvement in bilateral ties, the Philippine defence chief said on Monday as he accepted three maritime surveillance planes from Japan.

In a speech at a naval base south of the capital Manila, Delfin Lorenzana said the three Japanese donated second-hand TC90 planes would boost the navy’s capability to gather intelligence in the disputed waterway.

“We must admit that much still has to be done to boost our military capability equipment to meet a number of persistent maritime security challenges,” Lorenzana said, identifying territorial disputes with China, and other countries, over resource-rich areas in the South China Sea.

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Beijing claims almost the entire sea, where about US$5 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have conflicting claims.

Tensions between the Philippines and China over the disputed sea have eased since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in July 2016 and improved relations with Beijing via Chinese trade and investments.

Lorenzana said the Philippines was also concerned with piracy and the movement of armed insurgents in the Sulu Sea and other transnational crimes, including the smuggling of illegal drugs and poaching into rich fishing grounds in territorial waters.

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Japan planned to lease five surveillance planes but decided last year to transfer the aircraft without cost after changes were made in Tokyo’s self-defence forces law allowing the donation of excess defence and military equipment to partner countries.

Japan’s vice-minister for defence, Tatsuo Fukuda, said Tokyo was willing to help its allies improve their capabilities to help secure the safety of international sea lanes and benefit not only the Philippines but the entire region.

During the handover ceremony, Lorenzana and Fukuda watched the planes land at a naval base guarding the mouth of Manila Bay, hundreds of kilometres southeast of the disputed Scarborough Shoal now patrolled by Chinese coastguard ships.

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The navy said the surveillance planes have a range of 300km (186 miles), twice the capability of its existing aircraft and could patrol into China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratly, which had been converted into military bases.

The navy said it has a budget of nearly 6 billion peso (US$114.3 million) to buy two brand new long-range maritime patrol aircraft to enhance its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability.