US, China vie for Philippine military influence By Noel Tarrazona ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines - Competition for military influence in the Philippines is heating up, with both the US and China making new pledges of funds, arms and equipment to help modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Since 2002, Washington has poured hundreds of millions of dollars of military aid into helping the Philippine Army combat radical Islamist groups as part of the US-led campaign against terrorism in Southeast Asia. Now China is responding in kind with its own offers of military assistance to modernize and improve the army's capabilities. Chinese Defense Secretary Cao Gangchuan and his Philippine counterpart Gilbert Teodoro Jr met this month to discuss new ways to enhance bilateral military cooperation. As part of his five-day "goodwill" visit, Cao was granted full military honors at the Department of National Defense, which on the occasion announced that bilateral relations are entering a new "golden age of partnership". The senior Chinese defense official later met with President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and other senior politicians. Cao pledged an initial US$6.6 million grant to the Philippine Army in what was announced as a "confidence-building" measure. According to senior Arroyo administration officials, the grant was provisionally for non-lethal military equipment, including construction machinery earmarked for the army's engineering department, which manages development projects in various conflict-ridden areas. Philippine government sources confirmed that the initial grant will also cover the creation of a Chinese-language training program for the military, participation of the army in future naval exercises in China, and five seats for Filipino officials to enroll in intensive military courses in Beijing. The cooperative agreement builds on Arroyo's 2004 visit to China, where defense officials of both countries agreed to a continuing dialogue on security matters. Arroyo has made several visits to China and has reportedly appointed at least four special envoys to manage the two countries' growing economic, political and strategic ties. That strategic cooperation took a significant economic turn this month, with Arroyo signing a confidential protocol with China related to the exploitation of South China Sea oil resources. Government sources also told Asia Times Online that the agreement would allow China to explore for oil resources within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone, including within areas the two sides have historically disputed. Depending on how the various cooperative programs play out, China appears ready to ante up substantial assistance toward modernizing the Philippine Army's military machinery. A Philippine television station reported that China had offered provisionally to provide as much as $1.2 billion in financial facilities for the Philippine military. The report did not divulge details of the apparent agreement, including conditions concerning how or over what period the funds must be spent. Philippine defense officials contacted by Asia Times Online would not confirm or deny the report. Nor has the Defense Department articulated how Chinese financial assistance would fit, if at all, with the ongoing and expanding US military joint exercises in the southern Philippines, aimed in particular at uprooting the Abu Sayyaf terror group. Officials told Asia Times Online that the Philippine government views both US and Chinese military assistance as "beneficial", but declined to acknowledge any competition for local influence between the two rivals for regional influence. "We treat all nations equally. Under our constitution, we have to treat and respect all nations as good neighbors in the spirit of amity and cooperation," Defense Minister Teodoro was quoted in the Philippine press as saying when asked how the country's growing strategic ties with China would impact on Manila's ties with Washington. "Closer ties regionally with all our neighbors are good for the military. We agreed to continue to dialogue, which is a mutual exchange of views regarding regional concerns." Competitive arms Apart from dialogue, China is bidding to become a leading supplier of arms to the Philippine Army, which has recently relied largely on the US for its procurements. Beijing has reportedly recently offered to sell at a discount rate eight Harbin Z-9 utility helicopters to Manila. A licensed copy of Eurocopter's AS365N Dauphin, the Z-9 has since 1980 been manufactured by the Chinese company, a subsidiary of Beijing's state-owned AVIC II, can transport 10 armed soldiers, and reputedly can be configured for so-called electronic warfare. The army also reportedly needs new, modern attack and utility helicopters for its expanding fight against Muslim separatists in the country's restive southern regions. In July, as part of the government's military-modernization campaign, Arroyo earmarked P5 billion ($106 million) for the purchase of new helicopters. The air force has allocated an additional P1.3 billion to purchase six helicopters with night-attack capabilities, and sources say military planners are leaning toward Boeing's MD530-MG. The air force currently operates an aging fleet of MD520s, Bell UH-1H transports, and Sikorsky S-76 assault helicopters. Arroyo has gone out of her way to demonstrate equal treatment toward both the US and China, repeatedly saying her administration welcomes any military-related venture that is beneficial to the Philippine people. The US has emphasized development projects with the military aid it has extended to conflict-ridden areas in the southern island of Mindanao and the positive impact the assistance has had on the local economy, including the creation of badly needed jobs. The US recently launched a series of new military-related projects across the region estimated to be worth about $14.4 million. China has likewise emphasized economics in pursuit of strategic leverage. That includes the two sides' expanding trade ties, including most recently at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Sydney, where Philippine Trade Minister Peter Favila and Chinese Commerce Minister Bo Xilai exchanged new trade commitments. Favila told reporters, "As long as I am the minister, we should not allow anything that will get in the way of furthering relations. So let us look at the bigger picture ... our trade with China is expanding." Arroyo's recent visits to China this year not only benefited the Philippine Army but also several powerful ethnic-Chinese Philippine business people, known locally as tsinoys, who are rapidly expanding their enterprises into China. The ethnic-Chinese Gokongwei family, which has expansive interests in telecommunications, financial services, petrochemicals and power, has through a foundation sent more than 50 young Filipino leaders to China to study that country's economic-development model. China's recent economic charm offensive toward Southeast Asia in general and the Philippines in particular is clearly starting to take a hard strategic turn, aimed specifically at counterbalancing US military influence in the region. At the same time, Washington seems keen, under the guise of combating terrorism, to establish a new military foothold in the Philippines, where until 1991 the US maintained significant military assets at the Subic and Clark military bases. So far Arroyo has played both Beijing and Washington deftly and in the process secured significant benefits for both the Philippine military and the economy. But as US-China competition for regional military supremacy intensifies, it will likely be an increasingly difficult balance for her and future Philippine administrations to strike. Noel T Tarrazona is a journalist and training consultant to non-governmental organizations promoting Christian-Muslim peace dialogue and leadership training in the southern Philippines. He may be contacted at [email protected].