Dispute over Spratlys heats up


MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines
plans to acquire patrol ships, aircraft and an air defence radar system so it
is better able to guard its territory in and near the disputed Spratly Islands
in the South China Sea, the country’s military chief said.

China, the Philippines and four
other countries and territories claim all or parts of the Spratlys, which is
believed to have vast oil and gas reserves, teem with rich fishing grounds and
straddle one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

They have long been regarded as a
potential flash point for conflict in Asia.

Military chief Gen. Eduardo Oban
said it remains uncertain when the massive funding for the acquisitions,
initially estimated at about $181 million, could be made available, but the
government has asked the military to submit a list of equipment needed to
strengthen territorial defence in Palawan, the south-western Philippine
province nearest the Spratlys.

At least $700,000 could soon be
disbursed for the repair of a worn-out airstrip on Pag-asa, the largest island
occupied by Filipino troops in the contested Spratlys, Oban said.

Philippine defence and military
officials reportedly called off a trip to Pag-asa using a C-130 cargo plane
because of the dangerous condition of the runway.

The 120,000-strong military, one of
Asia’s weakest, has long faced funding shortfalls.

In recent years, it has focused on
combating decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies instead of external

“We have not given this enough
attention,” Oban said, adding President Benigno Aquino III’s administration
has seen the need to now bolster military presence in Palawan near the
contested region.

Two Chinese patrol boats allegedly
harassed a Philippine oil exploration ship into leaving a vast area called the
Reed Bank on 2 March, prompting a Filipino general to deploy two military
aircraft, which arrived at the scene after the Chinese vessels had left, the
military said.