Philippine military chief Gregorio Pio Catapang likens his task to a boxing match. Dwarfed by neighbors like China, with whom ties are strained, he’d like his forces to last at least a few rounds in the ring.
“Even if we are a bantam-weight fighting against a heavy weight, we are going to defend our sovereignty and national interest,” General Catapang, 55, said in an interview Wednesday in his office in Manila. “We renounce war as a national foreign policy, but we will have to stand and show the world we are a principled country.”
Sitting in his office surrounded by history, philosophy and psychology books, Catapang, who has been in the job since July, sets out his priorities for an army that for years was occupied by an insurgency in the south. With China building artificial islands in the resource-rich South China Sea and boosting its naval presence to support its territorial claims, the focus for the Philippine military is turning outward.
Catapang is looking to boost defenses in Ulugan Bay on the island of Palawan, the Philippine military post about 99 miles from the disputed Spratly archipelago. He’s also seeking lawmakers’ approval for about $10 billion to buy fighter jets and warships to achieve a “world-class armed forces” by 2028. China’s defense budget this year is around 47 times that of the Philippines’ 123 billion pesos ($2.8 billion) — 1 percent of gross domestic product.
The Spratlys are a collection of more than 100 islands or reefs that dot the waters of the southern South China Sea, and have been at the center of sparring for decades, claimed in part by Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and China.
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