MANILA, Philippines >> The Philippine military, one of Asia’s weakest, is too weak to stop foreign intrusions in areas such as disputed territories in the South China Sea, and the only recourse is diplomatic protests, the defense secretary said Tuesday.
A Philippine newspaper reported Tuesday that the Chinese military has erected barracks, outposts and garrisons with helicopter landing pads and satellite transmission facilities in areas close to a Philippine-claimed island in the Spratly Islands, where recent territorial spats have renewed tension.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the Chinese structures were built several years ago but that even today, the Philippine military would be helpless in stopping such expansion in the contested region.
“Until such time that we can upgrade our capability, we can’t do anything but protest and protest,” Gazmin told reporters.
China, the Philippines and four other Asian nations and territories claim the potentially oil-rich islands, which straddle busy shipping lanes.
Philippine authorities detected the presence of a submarine in the Sulu Sea off southern Jolo island in March. By the time the military reached the area to check, the unidentified submarine was gone, Gazmin said.
“It was an intrusion,” he told The Associated Press. “But again, what can we do?”
Gazmin said large amounts of money are needed to modernize the 129,000-strong military so that it would be capable of guarding the archipelago’s coastline, one of the world’s longest.
Many of the navy’s ships have “succumbed to the punishment of wear and tear,” with malfunctioning ones sidelined and never replaced. The few remaining ships are far below modern naval standards and are ready “to lie on their keels in the graveyard,” he said.
“This is truly deplorable but plain reality,” Gazmin said in a speech on the navy’s founding anniversary.
Gazmin announced the only major naval acquisition in recent years, a refurbished patrol ship purchased from the United States. Military chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Oban said the vessel will be deployed near the Spratlys.
The Philippine air force has proposed the acquisition of 16 combat helicopters, trainer jets and long-range patrol aircraft, along with an air defense and surveillance radar system from 2012 to 2016, air force chief Lt. Gen. Oscar Rabena said.
The modest wish list can only come true if the economy improves enough to cover the $325 million (14 billion peso) price tag, he said.
Despite scarce weapons, planes and aging warships, Filipino troops are fighting long-raging Muslim and communist insurgencies, Gazmin said, praising them for their “profound patriotic fervor.”
U.S. troops have been providing combat training, weapons and intelligence to Filipino soldiers battling al-Qaida-linked militants in the south, but they are forbidden from local combat and face many restrictions under an existing accord, he said.