CLARK FIELD, Philippines (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino vowed on Monday to leave behind a stronger and a more capable armed forces to face maritime challenges in the South China Sea when he leaves office next year.
Aquino, ineligible to run for re-election under the constitution, promised to spend about 83.90 billion pesos ($1.77 billion) in a five-year period until 2017 to strengthen the military as China asserts its claims to most of the waters.
The spending plan was only approved this year, meaning the bulk of that money will be spent in coming months.
“We’re planning to acquire new frigates, strategic sealift vessels, long-range patrol and close air support aircraft and other equipment,” Aquino said at the 80th anniversary of the armed forces.
He did not mention the South China Sea dispute specifically, but the equipment has been earmarked by the military to defend Philippine territorial rights.
“I have personally witnessed how the military grew stronger and more effective in preserving peace and stability, the key in building confidence in the Philippines.”
The strategic sealift vessel, being built in an Indonesian shipyard, will be delivered early next year and the Israeli-made radar will be completed by 2017, the same time all the fighters from South Korea are delivered.
He said the United States and Japan were helping develop capacity and capability as “some countries” in Asia have been increasing defense spending amid rising tension in the South China Sea.
China has overlapping claims with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei in the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines has challenged Beijing before the arbitration court in The Hague, a case Beijing has not recognized.
Aquino said his government has already spent 56.79 billion pesos since 2010, acquiring a squadron of light fighters from South Korea and combat helicopters from Italy. Washington has transferred two former coast guard cutters and transport planes to the Philippines.
The military has an ambitious 15-year modernization plan to spend about 998 billion pesos, acquiring frigates, submarines, advanced missile system, and radars to put the country at par with its Southeast Asian neighbors. ($1 = 47.3 pesos)
Additional reporting by Romeo Ranoco; Writing by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Nick Macfie