Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently approved a military budget increase which will see a 9% rise in funding for the armed forces over a five year period. Duterte will spend a total of $15 billion on new military hardware, which compares favourably to his predecessor Noynoy Aquino who spent only $1.9 billion on military hardware during that same period.
The irony of this reality becomes increasingly clear when one realises that President Duterte has renounced any form of violence and hostility against China and his instead engaged in a history making rapprochement with Beijing that President Xi hailed as a “golden era” of bilateral relations. Duterte has also renounced hostility regarding old claims against Malaysia and has vowed to instead work in the ASEAN format for cooperation with all south east Asian partners. By contrast, Duterte’s Liberal opponents continue to push for confrontation against China, even at a time when some Liberals, including the controversial Vice President aren’t even aware of what territories The Philippines have laid claim to in the South China Sea.
At present, The Philippine military is woefully under-equipped, thus making the very idea of taking on a fellow ASEAN state in a military battle a difficult endeavour. Extrapolated further, attacking the Chinese superpower would not only be a suicide mission from a military point of view, but from a position of common sense it would be ludicrous as China continues to work with The Philippines as a positive partner for peace through prosperity inducing inter-connectivity initiatives. Chinese President Xi and Philippine President Duterte have shown a commitment to a partnership that can overcome any lingering disagreements. The fact that some in the Philippine opposition have compared the prospect of pan-Asian peace through prosperity to some kind of “surrender” belies the dangerous ignorance which underscores the Liberal political program (or lack thereof).
The real reason that an upgrade to the under-equipped military of The Philippines is both necessary and urgent is not so that the country can provoke its important Chinese partner – not least because ASEAN just adopted a collective agreement which adopted the Duterte model of consultation and win-win compromise regarding the South China Sea claims of south east Asian nations. Instead, piracy, terrorism and drug trafficking are the primary foes that a modernised Philippine armed forces must focus on neutralising.
The importance of a viable anti-terror force has been made all the more apparent due to the kidnapping of three Filipinos and one Korean by terrorists in Libya. The group had been working on re-building a water plant in the failed state that is post-2011 Libya when they were taken hostage by one of the many piratical terror groups who now control much of what was once Africa’s most prosperous nation.
South Korea has already agreed to send a frigate to Libya in order to hasten the rescue of the hostages and now President Duterte has indicated he might be prepared to do the same. The Philippine President stated,
“Korea has sent a ship there. You know I’m not joking, I will also send a frigate if they begin to hurt the three Filipinos there. I will really send one there. Korea sent one … So I might send one, too. What should we send … A frigate. I’ll send two”.
Duterte then addressed the piratical terrorists directly and said,
“Don’t treat us like that, [or] I will cut your heads off. I’ll tell them [the navy] to blast them. Those pirates, blast them … if they don’t want to release the hostages”.
Duterte is not only correct in taking a zero-tolerance approach to piracy but his statements also justify his spending increase on the armed forces vis-a-vis that of his predecessor whose party thinks that the country is somehow in a position to take on the Chinese superpower when in reality, even sending frigates to Libya would clearly present a challenge to the country’s armed forces.
A compromise solution for The Philippines could be working with other partners to put together a small but fierce flotilla of ships that would include Philippine frigates that would accompany those of friendly nations off the waters of Libya. Here, Duterte’s partnership with Russia could be used to secure a Russian naval convoy to Libya in cooperation with both The Philippines and South Korea in order to help free the hostages. As Russia’s naval base in Tartus, Syria is within a comparatively short distance to Libya’s Mediterranean coast, it is entirely possible that Russia could be in a position to strengthen its anti-terror partnership with The Philippines in this respect.
Duterte clearly has the right idea when it comes to sending naval ships to Libyan waters as part of a wider effort to rescue the hostages. The sad reality is that because of decades of neglect, the Philippine navy may not be able to conduct such a mission without assistance. Because of this reality, in working with both South Korea and Russia, Duterte could help to secure a deeper partnership with two vitally important nations to the future development of The Philippines, all the while making sure that the hostages can be freed while the terrorists will not go unpunished for their dastardly crimes.