Philippine leader urges military to focus on South China Sea

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president said the primary mission of his country’s military has changed to ensure the protection of its territory disputes with China and US-China rivalry is growing.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. stressed the urgency of shifting the military’s focus to external defenses in a speech to troops Monday afternoon. He spoke two weeks after summoning China’s ambassador to protest Use of a military laser by the Chinese Coast Guard which briefly blinded part of the crew of a Philippine patrol ship in the South China Sea.

The Philippines condemned the Feb. 6 incident in one of more than 200 diplomatic protests it has filed since last year against Beijing’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on the disputed waterway.

China has accused the Philippines of encroaching on its territory and said its Coast Guard used a harmless laser to track the Philippine ship. China claims practically the entire South China Sea.

“I’m saying that your mission in the AFP has changed,” Marcos told the troops, referring to the Armed Forces of the Philippines. “For many, many years, we have been able to maintain that peace and understanding with all of our neighbors. Now things have changed and we have to adapt accordingly.”

He said the country’s borders were being challenged, “and a lot of things are happening that the Air Force has a very big mission to fully secure the Philippines.” He also cited “the intensification of competition among superpowers.”

Marcos gave no details in his speech in central Cebu province and made no mention of China, but stressed that Philippine foreign policy remains committed to peace.

Despite being a relatively small country, “because the Philippines is a sovereign nation and the Philippines has a functioning government, we still have to fight for the rights of every Filipino,” he said.

After decades of fighting Muslim and communist insurgencies, the military has begun to focus on defending the country’s maritime borders. She has launched efforts to modernize a program that has faced delays and financial constraints.

Much of the weapons and equipment were geared towards enhancing its air and sea patrols to guard the archipelago’s extensive coastline and provide a minimal deterrent.

As part of a 2014 defense pact with the United States, Marcos recently authorized a broader US military presence in the Philippines by allowing rotating groups of American forces to remain in four other Philippine military camps. It’s a sharp about-face from his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, who feared the US military’s footprint would offend Beijing.

China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei are locked in an increasingly tense territorial standoff in the South China Sea, where US Navy ships and warplanes have been conducting patrols to encourage freedom of movement to challenge Beijing’s expansive claims and to pacify allies like the Philippines.

Disputes have intensified after China turned seven disputed reefs into island missile bases to bolster its claims. The disputed waters have been seen as a possible Asian flashpoint and a thorny front in the US-China rivalry in the region. Philippine leader urges military to focus on South China Sea

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