MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines signed a US$337 million contract on Tuesday (Oct 25) with a South Korean shipyard for the supply of two navy frigates, underlining its intent to beef up its sea defences while pursuing closer ties with its biggest maritime rival, China.
The acquisition of the modern frigates was a big step for the Philippine navy towards building a "world class and well-equipped" force that could protect sovereign territory, navy spokesman Captain Lued Lincuna said.
Capt Lincuna said the contract was the most expensive procurement for the military since President Rodrigo Duterte took office late in June. Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana signed the agreement with representatives of South Korea's Hyundai Heavy Industries.
Mr Duterte visited China a week ago, seeking to normalise relations with Beijing that were soured by a dispute over the South China Sea after China seized the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and built man-made islands in the Spratlys in 2014.
Mr Duterte said he hoped China would soon allow local fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal, an important Filipino fishing ground, without being harassed by China's coastguard.
He is currently in Japan, which has agreed to provide the Philippines with 10 new coastguard ships.
The Philippines in September proposed a 14 percent rise in defence spending next year to fund a five-year 82 billion peso military modernisation programme to catch up with its neighbours in Southeast Asia.
A senior defence official told Reuters the Philippines would also buy eight amphibious assault vehicles from the United States, plus three anti-submarine helicopters and two long-range patrol aircraft from a European defence contractor.
A contract for three aerial radars worth 2.6 billion pesos had been earlier awarded to an Israeli contractor.
The latest defence buys reflect an intent by Manila to diversify its military equipment away from reliance on the United States, its former colonial overseer, which was its primary source of armaments.
From 2002 to 2011, the United States provided nearly US$500 million in military assistance to the Philippines for sales, education, training and counter-terrorism, according to the US embassy.
Additionally, the United States has provided three ships - two Hamilton-class cutters and a Cyclone-class cutter - and some 20 Vietnam War-era American helicopters.