The territorial dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea remained a security challenge despite an improvement in bilateral ties, the Philippine defense chief said yesterday as he accepted three maritime surveillance aircraft from Japan.
Philippine Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana, in a speech at a naval base south of Manila, said the three Japanese-donated second-hand TC90 aircraft would definitely boost the navy’s capability to gather intelligence in the disputed South China Sea.
“We must admit that much still has to be done to boost our military capability equipment in order 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.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about US$5 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass every year. Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam also have conflicting claims in the strategic waterway.
Tensions between the Philippines and China over the disputed sea have eased since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in July 2016 and improved relations with Beijing via Chinese trade and investments.
Japanese Vice Minister of Defense Tatsuo Fukuda said Tokyo was willing to help its allies improve its 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 aircraft land at a naval base guarding the mouth of Manila Bay, hundreds of miles southeast of the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan Island, 黃岩島) now patrolled by China Coast Guard ships.
The navy said the surveillance aircraft have a range of 300km, twice the capability of its existing aircraft and could patrol into China’s seven artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), which had been converted into military bases.
The navy has a budget of nearly 6 billion peso (US$115.14 million) to acquire two brand new long-range maritime patrol aircraft to enhance its surveillance capability, it said.
Asked if the Philippine military would stop the surveillance of Scarborough Shoal following protests from Beijing, Lorenzana said the flights would continue because the area is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, giving the country internationally recognized sovereign rights.
A Philippine official said China raised concerns over the patrols, when Chinese and Philippine officials met to discuss their territorial disputes in Manila last month.
Additional reporting by AP
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