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Philippine military chief seeks arms upgrade as China expands

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine military chief Gregorio Pio Catapang likens his task to a boxing match. Dwarfed by neighbors like China, with whom ties are strained, he'd like his forces to last at least a few rounds in the ring.

"Even if we are a bantam-weight fighting against a heavy weight, we are going to defend our sovereignty and national interest," General Catapang, 55, said in an interview Wednesday in his office in Manila. "We renounce war as a national foreign policy, but we will have to stand and show the world we are a principled country."

Sitting in his office surrounded by history, philosophy and psychology books, Catapang, who has been in the job since July, sets out his priorities for an army that for years was occupied by an insurgency in the south. With China building artificial islands in the resource-rich South China Sea and boosting its naval presence to support its territorial claims, the focus for the Philippine military is turning outward.

Catapang is looking to boost defenses in Ulugan Bay on the island of Palawan, the Philippine military post about 99 miles from the disputed Spratly archipelago. He's also seeking lawmakers' approval for about $10 billion to buy fighter jets and warships to achieve a "world-class armed forces" by 2028. China's defense budget this year is around 47 times that of the Philippines' 123 billion pesos ($2.8 billion) — 1 percent of gross domestic product.

The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea, and have been at the center of sparring for decades, claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.

China is carrying out construction on some islands and shoals claimed by the Philippines and plans to erect five lighthouses there. The Philippines has sought international arbitration over its disputes with China, a process that country refuses to join.

China is "projecting the image that they own the South China Sea, but it's still under litigation," Catapang said, adding he doesn't view conflict with China as inevitable. "While it is being arbitrated, we want to show that we really own those islands. That's why we're putting the marines, the navy, the army in the islands that we possess."

Under the first phase of the modernization plan which lasts until 2017, the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, will buy three frigates to take its stock to six, Catapang, who is responsible for 120,000 servicemen and women, said. The military plans to increase its squadrons to three from one and install a nationwide early warning radar system and air defense artillery, he said.

"The modernization program is primarily focused on upgrading military capabilities, equipment and infrastructure," Budget Secretary Butch Abad said in emailed comments. "It's especially critical now, as the country faces threats to its security."

As other countries focus on projecting power outward, building longer-range naval and air capacity, the Philippines too wants to be part of a "bigger community," Catapang said.

"Twenty-first century wars will all be global," he said. "Global terrorism, global climate change, global warming, global maritime concern, global transnational crime, and hopefully not, global proliferation of weapons of mass destruction like nuclear war. Those are what we're preparing for."

President Xi Jinping has sought to extend China's reach since coming to power in November 2012, and the navy is modernizing and expanding its nuclear submarine base at Yalong Bay on Hainan Island, its gateway to the South China Sea. The Communist Party leadership has for the first time stated a national goal of making China a maritime power, with a more combat-ready military to bolster its territorial claims.

On Wednesday, Catapang traveled to Fort Magsaysay in the northern province of Nueva Ecija to distribute new 5.56mm M4 assault rifles to soldiers, as the military acquires 50,629 of the weapons. Eight combat utility helicopters and eight long-range patrol jets will arrive this year, President Benigno Aquino said in July, while two of 12 FA-50 jets from South Korea will be delivered in 2015.

Equipment acquired from 2010 to 2014 included combat utility helicopters, troop carrier trucks and watercraft, according to the budget department.

The Philippines has replenished supplies to the Ayungin Shoal, where it scuttled a naval boat in 1999 to serve as an outpost, Catapang said, after China in March warned two Philippine boats near the disputed reef. In Ulugan Bay, the military needs about 4 billion pesos to develop a base, build a runway and expand its 1,000 strong-troops, Catapang said.

The modernization of the military also depends on the strength of the economy and gains in tax revenue, according to the general, who studied at the Australian Defence College. Aquino has overseen a revival of the economy with growth exceeding 7 percent in 2013 and tax revenue rising to a record.

"The progress of the nation is very crucial or else it will be a gun versus basic food, services issue," Catapang said.

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