The Philippines relaunched an old U.S. Coast Guard cutter Wednesday as its biggest and most modern warship to guard potentially oil-rich waters that are at the center of a dispute with China.
President Benigno Aquino III witnessed the commissioning of the 3,390-ton Philippine navy frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar in an austere Manila pier ceremony that he said symbolized his country's struggle to modernize its underfunded military despite many obstacles.
"As an archipelago with 36,000 nautical miles of coastline, it's important for us to have an adequate and formidable defense to guard our islands," Aquino said. He added that such a security shield could no longer be mounted "with dilapidated vessels and old and faulty equipment."
As a navy brass band played, Roman Catholic priests sprinkled holy water on the deck of the newly repainted warship, equipped with anti-aircraft guns and a newly refurbished surveillance helicopter on the flight deck. Three navy planes flew over and officials broke a bottle of sugarcane wine on the bow as the ship went into commission.
Officials also unveiled a smaller troop- and tank-carrying ship named BRP Tagbanua, the first of its kind to be assembled in the Philippines.
Already spread thin while fighting decades-long Muslim and communist insurgencies, the 125,000-strong military has begun to focus on territorial defense amid renewed tension over long-simmering territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
The Philippines, a U.S. defense treaty partner, has relied on Washington to acquire better surveillance and patrol ships and aircraft for its military, one of Asia's weakest. Aquino said the Philippines would acquire another U.S. Coast Guard cutter soon. He also plans to seek used fighter jets from Washington when he visits there next year.
"We've been left behind for a long while," Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said. "We can't monitor our surroundings, we can't monitor intrusions."
"We're taking steps to catch up with our neighbors," he said.
In March, two Chinese vessels tried to drive away a Philippine oil exploration ship from the Reed Bank, an area west of the western Philippine province of Palawan. Two Philippine air force planes were deployed, but the Chinese vessels had disappeared by the time they reached the submerged bank.
The Philippines protested the incident, which it said was one of several intrusions by China into its territorial waters in the first half of the year. Vietnam has also accused Chinese vessels of trying to sabotage oil exploration in its territorial waters this year, sparking rare anti-China protests in Vietnam.
China denied there were any intrusions, saying it has sovereignty over those waters. China claims nearly all the South China Sea on historical grounds.
The Philippine navy said it would deploy the new warship to waters west of Palawan, especially around an area called Malampaya, site of the country's largest natural gas field.
In July, China protested after the Philippine government invited foreign companies to bid for the right to explore oil and gas in two areas near the Malampaya gas field. One of the two areas was less than 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Palawan province, the closest territory to the Philippines to be claimed by Beijing, Energy Undersecretary Jose Layug Jr. said.
The Philippines asserted that the areas were well within Philippine territorial waters, Layug said, adding that the country would proceed to invite investors to explore for oil and gas in those areas.