Out of the doldrums
At the rites marking the 115th anniversary of the Philippine Navy, President Aquino announced a P75-billion upgrade for the service. It is a necessary investment, but hardly sufficient. In terms both absolute (number of ships in service) and relative (in proportion to the size of the archipelago), the Navy is the weakest in the region. But at least the country’s naval force seems to have finally sailed out of the doldrums of fiscal and strategic neglect.
The plan calls for acquiring five ships by 2017: two new frigates and three fast patrol boats. In addition, the upgrade calls for two antisubmarine helicopters and eight amphibious assault vehicles. The P75-billion budget is on top of the P28 billion already spent on the Navy in the last two years, much of it to acquire and refurbish two US Coast Guard cutters (the first is already in service).
Not exactly a blue-water navy, but then our objectives are limited to defending Philippine territory. Is the upgrade enough, to deter regional piracy or Taiwanese obstreperousness or Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea? That remains to be seen, but there is no debate about the need to quickly make the Navy shipshape. The P100-billion-plus outlay over the next few years may seem big, especially when compared to the budget allotted for the controversial conditional cash transfer program, but it is part of the price we have to pay for defending our sovereignty.
When President Aquino spoke at the Navy rites of having “the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard,” many Filipinos must have thought he was referring to either the Taiwanese or the Chinese. Taipei may be in the news now, but in fact it is Beijing that is the long-term problem. Precisely because the problem is for the long haul, the military build-up must be seen as only part of the solution. Much still depends on the continuing work on both the diplomatic and legal fronts. But an improved military posture can only be an advantage in diplomacy, and demonstrates a commitment to defend what is legally ours.
In other words, we understand the expensive Navy upgrade as a necessary component of a larger defensive strategy: We can demand better terms if we negotiate or argue from a position of relative strength.
To be sure, there is no comparison with China’s own military build-up, the annual budget of which is about a hundred times more than the cost of our naval upgrade. But it is the unprecedented aggressiveness of the Chinese government itself, in claiming almost all of the South China Sea and in occupying island groups under Philippine control or within the Philippine exclusive economic zone, which has raised tensions in the region.
(It must also be pointed out that the Armed Forces’ renewed emphasis on external defense was made possible in part by the progress made in the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the continuing decline in the number of New People’s Army regulars. There is a slow pivot away from the AFP’s counterinsurgency orientation.)
We must note, however, that this is not the first time that AFP modernization has received generous fiscal support. Unfortunately, much of the money was frittered away, with the corruption scandals involving generous retirement packages for generals and free-spending comptrollers the only visible trace of some of that cash. Will the billions of pesos spent on the upgrade of the Navy, the acquisition of new planes for the Air Force, the purchase of new weapons for the Army, come down a few years from now to familiar tales of corruption?
Considering the threats looming on the horizon, the usual “pabaon” for retiring generals should be considered an act of treason.