The Philippines is rearming itself and strengthening defence ties with its east Asian neighbours in the midst of a security upheaval triggered by superpower rivalries in a region crucial to world trade.
Delfin Lorenzana, Philippine secretary of national defence, said Manila wanted to reduce its military dependence on the US but would not become a Chinese client state despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s public courting of Beijing.
“We are buying ships from Indonesia, aeroplanes from Korea, ships from Korea. Japan is providing us some ships,” said Mr Lorenzana, who has in his office a large model of a Korean-made FA-50 fighter, an aircraft already being delivered to the Philippines.
“We will maintain our relationship with the United States and maybe develop some more defence relationships with the Asean [Association of Southeast Asian Nations] neighbours,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times.
The Philippines is at the heart of a scramble in the Pacific to cope with China’s territorial ambitions and new uncertainties created by Donald Trump’s election as US president.
Mr Lorenzana said Philippine officials from Mr Duterte down wanted to “expand our horizons” in an evolving campaign to improve the country’s “very weak” defence capabilities. He said he was hoping Congress would approve a second phase of military modernisation spending to the tune of about $2.3bn over the next five years.
Manila was shopping widely for equipment to build up its navy, air force and coastguard — including from Beijing, as Mr Duterte has previously indicated. “What’s wrong with going to China and getting something from them?” he asked.
The Philippines is looking to deepen defence co-operation with other large Southeast Asian countries that have overlapping claims with China, notably Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia. Manila’s problems in sourcing spare parts for US military equipment after it forced Washington to withdraw from Philippine bases in the early 1990s had “left a mark in our psyche that it’s not good to rely on one country for your defence”, Mr Lorenzana said.
Even so, he said, “I don’t think we will cut off ties with the United States. The people relations between the two countries are still huge. We have 100,000 Americans living here and there are about 3m Filipinos living in the States.”
Mr Lorenzana himself, a former army major general, was previously stationed at the Philippine embassy in Washington for more than a decade and has three children living in the US.
The defence secretary and other senior Philippine ministers have had to interpret a dramatic shift in foreign policy since Mr Duterte took office in June. A president who once pledged to ride a jet ski to plant his country’s flag on territory contested with China has since distanced himself from a long-awaited international tribunal ruling in July that delivered victory to Manila over Beijing.
The Philippine leader used a trip to China in October to dismiss the judgment as “just a piece of paper” and announce Manila’s “separation” from Washington. Since then China appears to have allowed Philippine fishermen to return to Scarborough Shoal, a rocky outcrop that has been a subject of bitter dispute between the two countries since 2012 — although Manila does not have large enough military vessels to monitor the situation there for more than a couple of days.
But Mr Lorenzana suggested the dispute was far from over, noting that the Philippines still felt it had the “stronger claim”. He styled China as a friend rather than an ally, adding that neighbouring countries had warned Manila to be careful in its dealings with Beijing.
“We will stand up for our rights but not now, especially that we have a very weak defence capability,” he said. “We do not even have a big enough ship to maybe confront the Chinese coastguard face to face.”
Mr Lorenzana stressed that the US-Philippine relationship would endure. On his office wall is a photograph of General Douglas MacArthur’s return to the Philippines late in the second world war after MacArthur and the US colonial administration had been forced out by the invading Japanese.
Mr Lorenzana acknowledged that Japan and South Korea, now strong US allies, were “very concerned that we are trying to detach ourselves from the Americans”. He said the US had “neglected” Southeast Asian security because it was preoccupied with problems such as the Middle East and Ukraine, allowing China to start “grabbing islands”.
He said the Philippines had no plans to scrap its 1951 security treaty with Washington, stop US access to bases in the country for equipment storage or expel US troops remaining in the southern Philippine islands where radical Islamist groups are active. Joint military exercises would also remain, with “reformatting” in some cases to focus more on areas such as disaster relief and humanitarian assistance, he added.
Mr Lorenzana noted that Mr Duterte had damped his anti-US rhetoric since Mr Trump’s election win last month. The Philippine government says Mr Trump has invited Mr Duterte to visit the White House next year, although the US president-elect’s team have not confirmed this.
“I don’t know what the relationship will be between my president and president-elect Trump once he gets inaugurated,” Mr Lorenzana said. “But since [Trump] won, I think my president has not attacked the United States that much, not any more.”
Additional reporting by Minnie Advincula