Philippine President Benigno Aquino III yesterday vowed a stronger military defense of his country’s South China Sea claims as the navy’s newest warship sailed into Manila Bay from the US.
“This ship symbolizes our newly acquired ability to guard, protect, and if necessary, fight for the interests of our country,” Aquino said as the refurbished Hamilton-class cutter Gregorio del Pilar dropped anchor.
“This is just the beginning. Expect more good news because we will not stop at one ship,” he said.
Aquino said the former US Coast Guard cutter, now the Philippine navy’s flagship vessel, would protect the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and its oil and gas exploration activities in the South China Sea.
Many of those areas are claimed by China, which insists it has sovereign rights to almost all of the South China Sea. Other parts of the sea are also claimed by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The competing claims have for decades made the sea one of Asia’s most dangerous potential military flashpoints, and tensions flared this year after the Philippines and Vietnam accused China of becoming increasingly aggressive.
The Philippine navy has an old and badly equipped fleet of fewer than 80 ships to protect its coastline and vast marine interests. The navy’s chief hailed the 115m Gregorio del Pilar as a timely boost to the Philippines’ military power.
“The Gregorio del Pilar’s ability to operate in adverse conditions ... will be vital in securing our maritime nation’s territory and asserting our sovereignty in areas where our capability is now seriously needed,” Vice Admiral Alexander Pama said at the welcoming ceremony.
However, the “new” ship first went into operation in the US more than 45 years ago.
Manila clinched the deal for the Gregorio del Pilar — named after a Philippine revolutionary hero who fought the Spanish and died in combat against US forces — early this year.