MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines has "contingency plans" in place to defend disputed territories in the South China Sea, a top security official said Thursday.
"We have contingency plans for that. We are ready," National Security Council deputy chief Vicente Agdamag said at an annual forum organized by the Philippine Air Force.
The retired Navy officer did not disclose any details of the plans in his remarks, which came one day after President Benigno Aquino urged other countries to respect his country's territorial sovereignty and vowed not to "back down from any challenge."
But Agdamag said the Philippines still needs to improve its capabilities "for surveillance, monitoring, transport, mobilization and reaction" in order to forge a "credible defense capability to protect our maritime and strategic interests."
"We are recommending that we commit to increase our investment for defense from 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the GDP (gross domestic product)," he said.
He added the Philippines must in the meantime enhance its security alliance with the United States.
Tensions remain high between Manila and Beijing due to the continuing presence of Chinese vessels at the disputed Scarborough Shoal and the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea.
China claims virtually the entire South China Sea, a major commercial sea lane with rich marine resources and believed to contain large deposits of oil and natural gas.
Aside from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan are also laying claim over some territories in the sea.
China and the Philippines began strongly asserting their respective claims in 2010 after Chinese vessels tried to stop a Philippine energy surveillance team from conducting its exploration activities at the disputed Reed Bank in March of that year.
Despite budget constraints, the Philippine government has allocated a budget of 75 billion pesos (almost $1.8 billion) for national defense over the next five years.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said at the same forum that with this money, the air force, for example, should be able to acquire "potent and dependable assets and platforms."
Air force chief Lauro Catalino dela Cruz said there is already a recommendation to acquire 12 new fighter aircraft, three medium-lift aircraft, two light-lift aircraft, three radar systems for use at the western part of the country facing the South China Sea, eight combat utility helicopters and 10 attack helicopters.
He said FA-50 fighter aircraft, which may be sourced from South Korea, Italy or Sweden, could be acquired by mid-2015.
"Part of territorial defense is being able to go to that particular place at the shortest and fastest time. With the technology right now, it can only be done by that aircraft. That aircraft has the range, the speed and the capability," he said.
In October 2005, the Philippines decommissioned its F-5 jets, effectively losing capability to deal with external threats.
The Philippine Navy is also set to boost its patrol capabilities in the disputed areas with the expected arrival in August of the country's second battle-ready Hamilton-class cutter from the United States.
While building up its military, Agdamag said the Philippines must also pursue healthy and friendly relations with China and "work closely with regional partners" to be able to shape a "benign China that respects the world order and the global and regional commons."
He said this would allow the Philippines to "buy time" to grow further its economy and expand its military capabilities, citing 10 years as the minimum for a sustained economic growth of 7 percent-8 percent "to grow our capability upgrade programs."