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The Philippines Requests U.S. Support Amid Ongoing Dispute With China


President Obama is giving the Philippines two more secondhand naval vessels. He announced it yesterday in Manila. They're meant to bolster the country's ability to defend its territorial waters. Nobody mentioned China, but it's China's increasingly muscular efforts in the region that have people worried. And as Michael Sullivan reports, the Philippines has reason to be worried.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: I'm sitting in the middle of Oyster Bay off the coast of Palawan in the South China Sea. The water is a deep blue. The jungle around me on other side is a deep green and a light rain is beginning to fall. The Philippines armed forces plans to spend about a hundred million dollars to turn this picturesque bay into a major operations base. It will deploy its largest and best-equipped warships to protect its interests in the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea as they call it here.

It's an ambitious plan, but they still need to find the money to build the facility and modernize the Philippine navy. Those two best-equipped warships are gas-guzzling hand-me-down U.S. Coast Guard cutters. And the Philippine air force...

ROILO GOLEZ: What I can is that the height of Philippine airpower was in the '50s, maybe '60s.

SULLIVAN: That's former Philippines National Security Adviser Roilo Golez.

GOLEZ: But because of no external security problem at that time, our air defense capability has diminished over the years.

SULLIVAN: And that is a charitable assessment for a less nuanced inventory. I reached out to Manuel Mogato, a Reuters correspondent in Manila, who pretty much knows all there is to know about the Philippines military.

Manuel Mogato, how many jet fighters does the Philippine Air Force have?


SULLIVAN: Manuel Mogato, how many submarines does the Philippine navy have?


SULLIVAN: Manuel Mogato, how many helicopter carriers does the Philippine navy have?


SULLIVAN: Manuel Mogato, I'm seeing a pattern here.


SULLIVAN: For decades, the Philippines enjoyed the protection of the U.S. military via its naval and air bases in the country. And the Philippines' military focused its limited resources on the domestic threat posed by communist and Muslim separatists in the South. That left it ill-prepared to cope with China's new assertiveness in the South China Sea. That's why the country is now hoping its longtime ally, the U.S., will come to its aid in the Philippines' ongoing dispute with China over resources and territory.

RICHARD HEYDARIAN: To be honest, I think there's a level of over expectation when it comes to the United States, as far as the Philippines is concerned. And I think there's a sense that the U.S. pivot means that the United States will side automatically with countries like the Philippines against China.

SULLIVAN: And that would be a mistake, says Richard Heydarian of De La Salle University in Manila, whose new book is "Asia's New Battlefield: The U.S., China And The Struggle For The Western Pacific." He says the Obama administration' pivot towards Asia is being oversold here in the Philippines.

HEYDARIAN: The Obama administration has been very clear. We take no position on sovereignty claims in the area. And at best, what the Philippines can expect from the United States is cooperation where the interests of two countries overlap, which is on the caution of freedom of navigation.

SULLIVAN: And Heydarian says hope that the U.S. interest in freedom of navigation exercises - like the one it conducted last month - will send a message to China not to engage in any more territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Many here worry China's next target may be the resource-rich Reed Bank, not far from where China is completing an airfield on a reclaimed reef. Untapped and undefended, the Reed Bank has enough natural gas reserves by some estimates to keep China happy for decades. That's a powerful incentive for Beijing to keep nibbling and for Manila to keep worrying. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Manila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.