The standoff near Scarborough Shoal should remind the national leadership that the Philippines needs better resources to patrol its territory, especially if it wants to stake a claim on disputed areas. Yesterday the refurbished warship of the Philippine Navy, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar,pulled out of the area as a Coast Guard vessel took over guarding 10 Chinese fishing boats that were intercepted near the shoal, which the Philippines claims as part of its territory. Beijing, for its part, dispatched a third “maritime surveillance vessel” to the area as it reiterated its claim over the entire South China Sea.
While China is no naval power, it is a member of the nuclear club. In recent years it has strengthened its defense capability in what Beijing insists is an effort to make that capability commensurate with the size of its economy and population.
The world’s second largest economy can afford a substantial increase in its defense spending. On the other hand, the Philippines for many years has lacked not only the funds but also, it seems, the political will to invest in the country’s own credible defense. Although the country shut down the US military bases in 1992, Manila continues to count on its defense alliance with Washington, dating back to colonial times, for Philippine national defense.
Whether that alliance can be counted on in case of confrontation in the South China Sea remains to be seen. Beijing has often reassured the world that it has no aggressive military intentions, that there is no cause for alarm over its “peaceful rise.” Among its largest trading partners is the United States; the two countries’ economies are closely intertwined, and Washington has often said it is not taking sides in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Regardless of where Washington stands in this issue, the Philippines should be prepared to defend its own territory. At the very least, the country should have its own resources for patrolling its extensive coastline.
The Philippines and China have friendly and economic ties that started long before the Spanish colonial period. No one expects the standoff in the Scarborough Shoal to deteriorate into armed confrontation. But the incident should give urgency to the need for the Philippines to invest in credible national defense.