MANILA • The Philippines can afford only a "frugal" military upgrade, defence officials said yesterday, even though maritime tensions with China are growing.
Despite a proposed 25 per cent rise in next year's defence budget, the government must still divide resources between external defence and internal threats like insurgencies and natural disasters, Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and other security officials added.
Since President Benigno Aquino took office in mid-2010, the Philippines has acquired two former US Coast Guard cutters, three landing craft from Australia and South Korea and seven UH-1H helicopters.
"The goal of updating and modernising our armed forces is a long and painstaking process," Mr Gazmin said at a ceremony to commission 10 more newly acquired air force helicopters.
"That means we have to be frugal and acquire reliable platforms at very reasonable costs... as allowed by our meagre financial resources."
The modest upgrade has been prompted partly by Beijing's moves to claim most of the South China Sea. These include building new islands in the Spratly archipelago and taking effective control of Scarborough Shoal after a stand-off with the Philippine navy.
Lieutenant-General Jeffrey Delgado, chief of the Philippine air force, said the 10 new helicopters will be used mainly to address internal security problems.
The military expects more aircraft deliveries this year including possibly the first two of 12 FA-50 fighter jets earlier ordered from a South Korean supplier, Lt-Gen Delgado told reporters.
He also said the FA-50S were mere "transition aircraft" towards more advanced fighters jets which the Philippines cannot now afford.
Defence Department spokesman Peter Paul Galvez said communist and Muslim insurgencies remained a priority despite the new watchfulness on Philippine borders.
"We are first focusing on internal security and in the succeeding horizons, we will go towards external defence," he said.
In criticising China's reclamation work, he said: "They should stop their island-building. That steps up the pace of militarisation."
The Philippines has been among the most vocal in challenging China's sea claims, which also overlap those of Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.
US Ambassador Philip Goldberg has said his country, the Philippines' closest defence ally, was ready to provide surplus military equipment and had budgeted US$50 million (S$70 million) in foreign military aid to the Philippines last year. AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE