MANILA - The Philippines, which often takes the brunt of China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, voiced concern Thursday over China's announcement it is increasing to almost USD 132 billion, a 12.2 percent rise over last year, its defense budget for 2014.
"In the context that they're being in an assertive mode," Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said in a door-stop interview China's ballooning defense budget "is something to be concerned about."
He added, however, it is the prerogative of each country to determine its military capacity.
"Given, however, China's assertive mode as viewed by the international community, a clarification of its significant increase in its military spending would be helpful," del Rosario said.
The Philippines has one of the weakest armed forces in the region, lacking fighter aircraft and its navy is made up of an aged fleet, some dating from World War II.
It essentially relies on the United States for its territorial defense.
A military official, who asked not to be named, said China will use part of its huge budget to strengthen its military muscle in the disputed South China and East China seas.
A confidential Philippine military report seen by Kyodo News noted an increased presence of modern Chinese vessels within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
The reports notes that Chinese intrusions are closer to Philippine shorelines and increases the "threat level to our country."
Since January, the report says, at least 18 Chinese frigates, 11 destroyers, 19 submarines, 87 patrol vessels and 161 landing ships intruded in Philippine waters in the South China Sea.
"The increasing frequency of sightings of Chinese government ships obviously indicates its roles as escorts of their civilian fishing vessels (is) basically in order to hinder the Philippine authorities from apprehending them," the report says.
The report adds, "It is highly evident now that the recent incidents (or sightings) are already on the east of the Mischief Reef," referring to a reef 240 kilometers off Palawan Province that China occupied in 1995 and later fortified into a naval base.
Mischief Reef is now Chinese navy's "most active naval base" in the South China Sea, according to the Philippine military.
The report says, "It is highly possible that China is determined to assert its claim politically and militarily" to gain control of Reed Bank, a submerged atoll northeast of the Spratly Islands about 85 nautical miles from the nearest coast of Palawan. Energy officials believe the area holds 3.4 trillion cubic feet of gas and 440 million barrels of oil.
The report says China is "the most aggressive" of all the claimants in the South China Sea, adding it has now occupied "12 features, including the Mischief Reef."
The Philippines controls nine, Vietnam 25, Malaysia six and Taiwan one. Brunei claims one reef now occupied by Malaysia.
Moreover, it says China plans to gain military control of Sabina Shoal, Amy Douglas Shoal and Boxall Reef, all potential sources of natural gas and within the Philippines' 200-nautical miles exclusive economic zone.
"Occupation of the Boxall Reef will restrict our activities in the (Second Thomas Shoal) and could put pressure for us to abandon that shoal," the report says. The submerged Second Thomas Shoal is the closest structure to Mischief Reef.
Maritime disputes in Reed Bank have stalled the Philippines' plans to start offshore oil and natural gas drilling off Palawan Province. Sources in the military claim Chinese ships patrol Reed Bank.
A Philippine government official said the "equivocal and irresolute" stance of the United States in the South China Sea is sending "mixed signals" that emboldens China to become increasingly assertive in its military actions in the South China Sea to the detriment of smaller countries such as the Philippines.
"The seeming lack of a clear, perceivable and credible position and action on the part of the U.S. and other major international players makes China's assertive actions effective and undoubtedly boosts the pursuit of her interests," Undersecretary Alexander Pama, executive director of the National Coast Watch Council Secretariat, told a security forum in Washington last month.
"The U.S., traditionally looked upon as the player that can have the most significant influence on the dynamics in the South China Sea, seems to be sending mixed signals with her pronouncements and actions resulting to an image, rightly or wrongly, of being equivocal and irresolute," said Pama, a retired chief of the Philippine navy.
The United States is the Philippines' only treaty ally, but it has refused to comment on how it might respond to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.
It has, however, repeatedly said claimants should resolve issues peacefully, without coercion, intimidation, threats or the use of force.
After the Philippine Senate voted out U.S. fixed bases in the Philippines in 1991, it ratified a Visiting Forces Agreement in 1999 to allow access by U.S. forces to Philippine shores and joint Philippine-U.S. military exercises.
Manila is now negotiating an expanded defense agreement with Washington that would give more access to U.S. troops to train and store military equipment on Philippine soil and waters.
"The talks have been positive," del Rosario said, voicing hope an agreement "can be forged soon."
"We need a conclusion of this agreement because it's good for both of us. I can't speculate, but hopefully it happens sooner than later," he said.
Rich in oil and mineral resources, the group of islets, shoals, reefs and cays known together as the Spratly Islands are claimed in whole or part by the Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.