Philippine Army shifts focus to territorial defense amid regional tensions

Camille Elemia
Philippine Army shifts focus to territorial defense amid regional tensions Philippine Army commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. discusses the military’s shift in focus during a news conference at army headquarters in Manila, Feb. 15, 2023.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

The Philippine Army has shifted its focus to territorial defense from internal security fueled by China’s increasing assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea, the army’s commanding general said Wednesday.

Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. told reporters that troops required a change of mindset to focus on an external enemy from fighting southern insurgents and communists.

“We are now transitioning from an internal security operations focus to territorial defense,” Brawner told reporters at the army headquarters.

The commander had been asked to comment on the military’s call for Beijing to restrain its forces in the South China Sea after a Chinese Coast Guard ship performed dangerous maneuvers and pointed a military-grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard ship this week.

“There is a common theme among armies around the world: wars will be fought on land so we have to be prepared,” Brawner said.

As part of the military’s modernization program, the army has in recent years acquired more weapons, including an Autonomous Truck Mounted Howitzer System (ATMOS 2000) 155mm self-propelled guns – the biggest in the Army’s arsenal ­– multi-launch rocket systems and land-based missile systems.

“If any invaders come near the land of the Philippines or inland, your [army] is ready to defend the nation,” Brawner said.

Along with the weapons upgrades, training must reflect the changing military landscape, he said.

“It’s really reorganizing our organization and training our troops to address external threats,” Brawner said.

The Philippines is at the center of geopolitical tensions in Asia involving the South China Sea in the west and Taiwan in the north.

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea including territories within the exclusive economic zones of Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Beijing has continued to ignore an international arbitration court’s 2016 ruling in favor the Philippines that invalidated its expansive claims.

Last month, China renewed its threats to invade Taiwan, which it considers a rogue province.

Meanwhile, U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan warned that a war could break out in 2025.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (right) expresses concern over Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea during a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian in Manila, Feb. 14, 2023. [Presidential Communications Office handout]

Improved relations

The Philippines recently granted the United States access to four additional military sites under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a move seen as central to Washington’s effort in deterring Beijing’s plans to attack Taiwan.

In addition, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who was in Tokyo last week, said he was open to entering into a visiting forces agreement with Japan.

China has opposed such plans, with state media warning the Philippines against being used by the U.S. and Japan.

The army supports an improved relationship with Tokyo, Brawner said, as it would allow more soldiers to perform military and human assistance and disaster relief exercises with their Japanese counterparts. He noted that Philippine troops sent to Turkey to help rescue operations following the massive earthquake were “trained and equipped by the Japanese government.”

The army chief also welcomed proposals for the Philippines to enter into similar visiting forces agreements with allies including New Zealand, South Korea and other Southeast Asian countries.

Citing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Brawner emphasized the importance of allied forces working together.

“If we look at what is happening now in the world, interoperability is very important. It has to start with trainings,” he said.

“I think if we are allowed to train with our partners, it would be more beneficial not just for the Philippine government, Armed Forces of the Philippines, I believe also for their armed forces,” he said.

The Philippines and the U.S. plan to hold larger joint army exercises this year, with around 3,000 troops from both nations expected to take part in Exercise Salaknib, up from 2,200 last year.

Jojo Riñoza in Manila contributed to this report.


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