May 212013

President Aquino AP FILE PHOTO

MANILA, Philippines — President Benigno Aquino on Tuesday announced a $1.8-billion military upgrade to help defend his country’s maritime territory against “bullies,” amid an ever-worsening dispute with China.

The announcement came on the same day that the Philippines filed a protest with China over the “illegal and provocative” presence of a Chinese warship and two other vessels at a Filipino-claimed shoal in the disputed South China Sea.

In thinly veiled comments referring to China, Aquino vowed during a speech to mark the navy’s 115th anniversary that the armed forces would be given the resources necessary to protect Philippine sovereignty.

“We have a clear message to the world: The Philippines is for Filipinos, and we have the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard,” Aquino told naval chiefs.

Aquino detailed a P75-billion ($1.82-billion) military modernization program that gives priority to upgrading the navy, which is one of the weakest in Southeast Asia.

He said by 2017 the Philippines would acquire two new frigates, two helicopters capable of anti-submarine warfare, three fast vessels for coastal patrols and eight amphibious assault vehicles.

“We will also improve our communications, intelligence and surveillance systems,” he said.

The Philippines has been locked for more than two years in an increasingly hostile dispute with China over rival claims to the South China Sea, which is believed to sit atop vast resources of oil and gas.

China insists it has sovereign rights to most of the sea, even waters close to the coasts of Southeast Asian countries.

Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan also claim parts of the sea.

China has in recent years taken what the Philippines and Vietnam say are increasingly aggressive actions to assert its claims.

In the latest incident, the Philippines said Tuesday that three Chinese vessels — a warship and two maritime surveillance vessels — had established a presence near the Filipino-claimed Second Thomas Shoal, also known as Ayungin.

“We (have) filed with the Chinese embassy in Manila our protest on the provocative and illegal presence of Chinese government ships around Ayungin Shoal,” foreign affairs department spokesman Raul Hernandez said.

“The intrusions and the activities… in our (waters) is part of the Chinese projection of their claim which we believe is excessive and in violation of international law.”

Second Thomas Shoal is a tiny group of islets and reefs near the Spratly Islands chain, about 200 kilometers (120 miles) north of Palawan.

It is very close to Mischief Reef, which the Philippines controlled until China built structures on it in the mid-1990s.

The Philippines says China has also since last year occupied a shoal 230 kilometers (140 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon.

Even with the extra spending announced by Aquino on Tuesday, China’s military budget would still dwarf Philippines’.

China announced in March its defense budget for 2013 would be about $115 billion.

The Philippines is also facing intense diplomatic pressure from Taiwan after the Filipino coastguard shot dead a Taiwanese fishermen this month in waters near the South China Sea.

The Philippines insists the Taiwanese fishing vessel was illegally in Filipino waters. However Taiwan denies this and has suspended important trade ties in a bid to punish the Philippines.

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