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Philippines cruise missile deal signals setback against China

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Philippine leaders are considering buying sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles in what analysts see as a sign of a new resolve to stand up to China in a maritime dispute and turn more to Manila’s traditional ally, United States.

The Philippines reached deals in January to acquire BrahMos missiles from a Russian-Indian joint venture. The move follows Manila’s consent in July 2021 to maintain a Visiting US Forces Agreement, which allows arms sales, intelligence sharing and US troops access to Philippine soil for military exercises.

The Philippines is part of a network of pro-American countries in East Asia, but President Rodrigo Duterte defied the American alliance in 2016 by pursuing friendly ties with Asian superpower China, which he praised while criticizing the American influence in his country. A series of territorial disputes in the South China Sea have chilled Duterte’s overtures over the past four years.

In this photo taken from a video broadcast at the United Nations headquarters, Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, addresses the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly remotely in a pre-recorded message, September 21, 2021.

“He doesn’t like insults to his authority, insults to his ego and insults to the sovereignty of the Philippines, and he’s got it,” said Carl Thayer, emeritus professor of politics at the University of New South Wales. in Australia. “And so, I think his legacy in his mind – ‘we resisted the United States at first, then it didn’t work out with China’ – and so he punishes them.”

Missile controls

BrahMos Aerospace Private Ltd. announced the signing of its contract with the Philippine Department of National Defense in a terse January 28 press release on its website.

Manila’s state-run Philippine News Agency reported a week earlier that the deal was worth $375 million and that two batteries would be made available to the Philippine military for coastal defense duties.

Experts say the Philippine Armed Forces, which set out to modernize at sea eight years ago, would likely use the missiles to deter Beijing from using coast guards, warships and fishing vessels in the sea from southern China west to Luzon Island and south to Hong Kong. , experts say.

“In a conflict situation, they would be used to attack ships at sea, and in the context of the Philippines, it would be more useful to control the movement of ships entering or leaving the South China Sea,” said Jay Batongbacal, international professor of maritime affairs at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City.

BrahMos missiles have a range of 290 kilometers and are designed to travel about three and a half times faster than the US Harpoon subsonic cruise missile. The Philippines is the largest non-Indian buyer of the missile systems, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows.

Old dispute, new cold

Chinese officials cite documents from the dynastic era to back up their claim to around 90% of the 3.5 million square kilometers of the South China Sea, while the Philippines rejects China’s claim, citing a convention law of the sea. Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam claim all or part of the sea, which is valued for fishing, fossil fuel reserves and shipping lanes.

Over the past decade, China, as the guardian of Asia’s most powerful military, has alarmed fellow claimants by building man-made islands for military use and ferrying its ships through expanses of disputed water. The Philippines won a global court arbitration case against China in 2016 over the scope of China’s maritime claims, but China rejected the ruling.

Duterte sought a first-ever Sino-Philippine friendship the same year, when China pledged $24 billion in aid and investment for the impoverished Southeast Asian country. For the past four years, however, China has allowed its boats to venture near disputed maritime features, and a Chinese ship sank a Filipino boat in 2019.

Many Filipinos believe that the resumption of Sino-Philippine relations after 2016 did not bring enough aid or investment. The US government represents a more stable ally, some analysts say.

“I think (Duterte) still recognizes that, practically speaking, the Philippines can’t do it alone,” said Derek Grossman, senior defense analyst at US research organization Rand Corporation.

Washington “always stands with its ally the Philippines, the US State Department said in a November statement about Chinese Coast Guard vessels that used water cannons against Filipino supply ships at sea. from southern China.

Electoral uncertainty

Duterte is due to step down in June due to term limits. Presidential front-runner Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, said he would not seek U.S. help in settling the maritime dispute with China. But most Filipinos still prefer stronger ties with the United States, analysts say, so Marcos could take a tougher line against Beijing, or a tougher stance in favor of Washington, if elected in May.

“If things are stable in the South China Sea, then China won’t really be an election issue, but, for example, (if) another incident happens, it will strengthen nationalist sentiment here in the Philippines,” Aaron said. . Rabena, researcher at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.

China has not formally protested the BrahMos missile deals. His forces could eventually “overwhelm” the missiles, Batongbacal said.

At a media Christmas party in December, Chinese Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian sounded an optimistic note about the overall relationship. “As the relationship between China and the Philippines becomes closer and closer, some differences have inevitably arisen, but this does not affect our overall relationship,” Huang said.