TAIPEI, TAIWAN - The dispatch of two Philippine coast guard ships to the Sulu Sea might normally register as a quick blip on the radar of world maritime movement. But shipments of illegal drugs and support for violent Muslim rebels cross that sea from other countries into the Philippines, which struggles to contain both. The Chinese navy is growing stronger not far away, too, and China disputes tracts of sea with the Philippines.
The Philippines has historically had a weak defense, especially at sea. Research database GlobalFirePower.com ranks the Philippine armed forces 64th strongest in the world. Neighbors China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam all rank higher.
Manila's Sulu Sea patrol, which started November 18 and will also cover the adjacent South China Sea, shows the country is accelerating its defense buildup because of the offshore threats, , analysts believe. The severity of problems that reach the archipelago from abroad are giving officials extra willpower now, they say.
"If it's not done fast, we won't have a very potent, a very credible deterrent armed forces or coast guard, so we have to put our money where our mouth is," said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a Manila research organization.
Drugs and rebels
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said in March that illegal drug use had worsened in part because supplies were being smuggled in, domestic news website Philstar Global reported. He swore when elected in 2016 to eradicate drugs, and his critics say thousands of drug suspects have already been killed without trial.
"Maybe Duterte realized his war on drugs cannot be won without stopping the inflow of drugs coming from Latin America and coming from the Mekong region, because a lot of drugs have been shipped in the back door and it's quite difficult to police," said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. "So, fighting the drug war requires upgrading the coastal capabilities of the coast guard."
The coast guard said on its website it helped last week detain the captain and crew of a merchant ship carrying 53,000 metric tons of a "toxic substance" from South Korea.
Sympathizers of the Middle Eastern terrorist group Islamic State use the Sulu Sea to reach Muslim antigovernment rebels in the southern Philippines, Duterte said last year. Violence there since the 1960s has killed more than 120,000 people.
Despite a 2014 peace accord with one dominant rebel group and the later creation of a semiautonomous Muslim region, terrorist attacks still flare up around the southernmost major Philippine island, Mindanao. In June, for example, suspected suicide bombers hit a military camp and killed three soldiers.
And in the South China Sea, known in Manila as the West Philippine Sea, hundreds of Chinese vessels gathered near a Philippine-held islet in waters the two sides contest. A Philippine fishing vessel capsized in June after colliding with a Chinese ship. The Philippines holds 10 islets in disputed tracts of the sea.
"The fact they put priority into the Sulu Sea is important because it really is probably second only to the West Philippine Sea in importance when you look at it from the perspective of maritime activity," said Jay Batongbacal: international maritime affairs professor at University of the Philippines. "There's a lot of activity there, so it's good that they're pouring resources into it."
Philippine officials have pledged military modernization since 1995 with an act of Congress approved that year, but budgeting has always been inconsistent. Duterte's predecessor used arbitration rather than a stronger defense to resist China at sea, Rabena said.
The threats from offshore are giving those pledges extra impetus now, experts say. A three-way deal to patrol the Sulu Sea together with neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia should add to that momentum, Rabena said.
Last year Duterte earmarked $5.6 billion for defense modernization through 2022. Earlier this month an Armed Forces of the Philippines official told a House of Representatives briefing the country should raise defense spending to 2% of GDP, which was $331 billion last year. Its current 1.1% lags the regional average.
An expanding tax base is expected to help fund military improvements, Araral said.
Defense has been "accelerated" further by hardware donations from abroad, he said. Washington has donated military equipment in the past. Japan, another country that wants to hold off China at sea, has pledged to send the Philippines two patrol vessels and lend it five surveillance planes.
The United States is helping the coast guard now develop a training center in several phases. There's already a classroom, engine maintenance laboratory and barracks for outboard motor maintenance. The U.S. Embassy in Manila said in October. U.S. Coast Guard teams will offer training.