MANILA - A classified government document seen by Kyodo News on Friday confirmed that U.S. Navy surveillance planes conduct routine maritime patrol to monitor activities in the disputed South China Sea.
"(There were) confirmed flights of U.S. P3C Orion aircraft over the South China Sea especially (in the contested Spratly Islands)," according to the document.
Last year, Philippine President Benigno Aquino revealed that Manila was seeking U.S. deployment of P3C Orion spy planes over the disputed sea since the Philippines lacks the capability to monitor its territorial and maritime claims in the sea.
"We can only do (the) best (with) what we have," the document says. "The military is aware of its limitations as regards equipment, naval and air assets, facilities and funding to support our efforts" in the South China Sea.
It says the military "needs another perspective of intelligence from higher headquarters and agencies that are relevant to our efforts".
Military experts describe the P3C Orion, a land-based maritime surveillance and antisubmarine aircraft that can intercept communications, as one of the most sensitive planes in the U.S. fleet.
Its reconnaissance flights are focused on Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged shoal 128 nautical miles (237 kilometers) off the Philippine island province of Palawan.
Since February, the Philippine military says, China has sent frigates and maritime surveillance vessels to the vicinity of the disputed shoal to maintain a presence, setting off alarm bells in Manila.
The territory, which is known to the Philippines as Ayungin Reef and to China as Ren'ai Reef, is part of a group of islets, shoals, reefs and cays known together as the Spratly Islands, which are claimed in whole or in part by Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
The Philippines has garrisoned the shoal plus eight other features it claims in the South China Sea.
China, which claims almost all of the South China Sea, wants the Philippines to remove a wrecked and rusty World War II-vintage landing ship which the Philippine military grounded in 1999 and which currently serves as its outpost there.
The military is closely monitoring the movements of Chinese ships in the shoal because of its proximity to Mischief Reef, a submerged bank about 129 nautical miles off Palawan that China occupied in early 1995. It is now Chinese navy's "most active base" in the South China Sea, according to the document.
Last year, China took control of Scarborough Shoal north of the Spratly chain, 124 nautical miles west of the Philippine main island of Luzon. So far, the document said, the Chinese navy has not "made any major changes" in Scarborough. "They're just maintaining their presence."
The P3C Orion has in the past taken part in joint maritime surveillance drills conducted by American and Philippine troops.
This year, for instance, the spy plane participated in the annual Cooperation Afloat Readiness and Training, a bilateral naval exercise between the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marines and the armed forces of nine partner nations in South and Southeast Asia.
Last year, the aircraft took part in a drill to test the operability of the coast watch system, a Philippine project funded by the United States and Australia that involves developing a string of radar platforms to help counter potential maritime threats in southern Philippines. The drill included patrols, surveillance, tracking and monitoring of a target vessel.
A hangar in Clark air base, once U.S. Air Force's fixed base in Angeles City, Pampanga, north of Manila, houses the Orion planes when in the Philippines.
The cash-strapped and ill-equipped Philippine military relies on the United States, its only treaty ally, for its territorial defense capability. Washington provided Manila $421.5 million in military aid between 2002 and 2011, according to figures from the U.S. Embassy in Manila.
Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Cuisia recently told a forum in Manila that U.S. aid provided to the Philippines under the Foreign Military Financing program, which makes available grants for the acquisition of U.S. defense equipment, services and training, more than doubled from less than $12 million in 2011 to $27 million in 2012. Additional U.S. military aid is provided under the anti-terrorism and military education and training programs.
"The pace and substance of dialogue have also intensified significantly," he said, adding, "The strategic imperative to engage with Asia has underscored the important role of the Philippines as a key U.S. ally in the region."
Cuisia said the Philippines and the United States " have clearly congruent interests" in the Asia-Pacific region. "Both countries recognize that economic stability needs to be premised on a secure and predictable security environment."
He said his government seeks to build "a minimum credible defense posture, to serve as deterrent to any aggressive action that may be taken against the Philippines."
After the Philippine Senate in 1991 forced the closure of U.S. fixed bases in the Philippines, it in 1999 ratified a Visiting Forces Agreement to allow access by U.S. forces to Philippine shores and joint Philippine-U.S. military operations in the country.
Government sources said Manila is now in a hurry to forge an expanded access arrangement with the United States.
"What we are talking about is joint use of certain facilities here in the Philippines. It may be Subic, it may be other facilities," Cuisia said.
He said the two sides are also discussing how to strengthen radar communications, which would enable the United States "to have a better grasp of what's going on in the region."
"We need to recognize that we need to strengthen our capability, particularly our security and maritime domain awareness," Cuisia said