Philippine troops to avoid fighting amid sea row

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine military won’t change its no-confrontation policy even as it acquires more weapons and seeks a larger U.S. military presence as territorial disputes intensify in the South China Sea, the armed forces chief said Wednesday.

Military chief of staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista said the Philippines is building a “minimum credible defense” to protect its territory and “to at least deter or make any aggressor hesitate or think twice before any hostile action.”

The Philippine military, one of Asia’s most ill-equipped, has converted two decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard cutters into navy frigates — now its biggest warships — and won approval for 75 billion pesos ($1.7 billion) in funding to modernize its air force and naval fleet and coastal defense system over the next four years, he told reporters.

Dwarfed by China’s mammoth military, the Philippines has started negotiations with Washington on giving a larger number of U.S. troops access to local military camps, where they could pre-position ships, helicopters and high-tech surveillance aircraft close to the increasingly volatile South China Sea.

Hundreds of U.S. troops have trained and provided intelligence and drone surveillance for Filipino forces battling al-Qaida-linked extremists in the country’s south since 2002.

“Relative to China, we’re such a small country, such a poor country,” Bautista said. “That is why we’re trying to leverage our alliance with our friends, with our allies to collectively create that security environment, to prevent aggression.”

The Philippines’ desire to bolster its defense has dovetailed with Washington’s intention to shift away from years of heavy military engagement in Afghanistan and Iraq. But China has cast a wary eye on Washington’s strategic “pivot” toward Asia and the Pacific.

Bautista played down the buildup, saying military policy and rules of engagement aim to “avoid confrontation but … show the flag in our territory.”

Long-unresolved territorial rifts involving China — which claims virtually all of the resource-rich South China Sea and its clusters of islands — Vietnam and the Philippines have erupted into new tensions in recent years.

The Philippine military has continued to detect Chinese fishing, surveillance and navy vessels at the Scarborough and Second Thomas shoals, two barren but strategically located areas claimed by both countries, Bautista said. China effectively took control of Scarborough after Philippine vessels backed off from a tense standoff with Chinese surveillance ships last year.

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