PHILIPPINES - Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday called the second Hamilton class-cutter from the United States a big boost to the Navy in patrolling the seas amid a territorial row with China.
In the drizzly morning but with a fiesta-like atmosphere, the President, Cabinet members and the military top brass watched from the BRP Ang Pangulo as the 3,250-ton decommissioned warship from the US Coast Guard docked at the port here, after a voyage of two months from the United States.
The president said the arrival of the Navy frigate, renamed BRP Ramon Alcaraz, and nicknamed by the Navy "Monching" was proof of the government's desire to have an Armed Forces capable of defending its people.
The first Hamilton class-cutter, BRP Gregorio del Pilar, has made patrolling the seas more extensive and faster, and the arrival of the BRP Ramon Alcaraz will further enhance this, Aquino said.
Overcome bad elements
"Now that the BRP Ramon Alcaraz is here, we're certain that this would intensify the patrol of the Philippine Economic Zone as well as our capability to overcome any threat from bad elements, respond to search and rescue operations, and protect our resources," he said in his speech.
The 3,390-ton BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the country's largest and most modern warship, got entangled last year in a standoff with Chinese vessels at Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal), a sprawling fishing ground more than 260 kilometres (160 miles) west of Subic that came under Beijing's control after Philippine vessels withdrew.
The second ship, which was obtained under a US-Philippine military assistance programme. signals the Philippine resolve to upgrade its antiquated equipment and move away from the reputation of being Asia's weakest military.
It is not a match for a militarily superior China, but both Philippine and US officials have agreed to bolster the country's defences to make them more credible. Washington is a defence treaty ally of the Philippines and is obligated to help fend off outside aggression.
Aquino later told reporters that the BRP Ramon Alcaraz was a "high endurance cutter" that could weather stormy seas, "so the ability to patrol our waters when the weather is not favourable is greater".
Officials said the 46-year-old ship, which was mounted by the Navy with two new gun systems, would be commissioned in October.
The BRP Ang Pangulo and the BRP Gregorio del Pilar were docked at the port when the BRP Ramon Alcaraz sidled close to port. In the end, the presidential ship lay in the middle of the two frigates.
China claims virtually the entire West Philippine Sea. As its military and economy are growing, it has been asserting its claims more aggressively. The Philippines has questioned China's moves before the United Nations.
On May 10, a fleet of Chinese fishing boats and patrol vessels drew close to Ayungin Reef in the Spratlys, drawing protests from the Philippines.
The Philippines in January asked the United Nations to compel China to respect its rights to exclusively explore and exploit resources within its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf as declared under the UN Convention on the Law of the Seas (Unclos.)
The Philippines asked the international body to declare that the Philippines is entitled, as provided for by Unclos, to "12 nautical miles of territorial sea, 200 nautical miles of EEZ and established boundaries of its continental shelf from the baselines".
After its 88 Filipino crewmen-14 officers and 74 enlisted personnel led by Capt. Ernesto Baldovino-were trained for its operation, the BRP Ramon Alcaraz left Charleston, South Carolina, on June 10 for its voyage to Manila.
The ship stopped by ports in Florida, Panama Canal, Hawaii and Guam, before it entered Philippine waters before dawn last Friday. Aquino challenged the Armed Forces and the BRP Ramon Alcaraz crew to "live by the courage of Filipinos who shed blood for country and flag".
"Just think of the courage displayed by Commodoure Ramon Alcaraz during the Second World War: There were nine zero Japanese fighters against one Q-boat (decoy ship) made of wood. Commodoure Alcaraz downed three of the nine, and managed to go back safely," he said.
This only meant that while he was at a disadvantage in terms of equipment, situation and training, he did not cower from the enemy, Aquino said.
"Commodoure Alcaraz overcame a nearly impossible situation because he was aware that no one else but us can defend our country. Now, his name is not only carved in the pantheon of heroes, or on our new ship, but is forever carved in the heart and mind of every Filipino," he said.
Accompanying the president were Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin and Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, AFP Chief of Staff Gen. Emmanuel Bautista and other military commanders, and US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas Jr.
The President noted that the mere fact that the BRP Ramon Alcaraz docked at Pearl Harbour, which was bombed during WWII, and then in Guam, where Apolinario Mabini was exiled, reflected the Armed Forces' readiness to fulfil its mandate: "Serve the flag, protect the country's sovereignty and take care of the people."
Aquino said the ship would be dry-docked or "tropicalised" and fitted with "additional armaments" before being deployed to patrol areas.
The Navy flag officer in command, Vice Adm. Jose Luis Alano, said in his remarks that the arrival of the BRP Ramon Alcaraz was an "affirmation" of Aquino's pledge to modernise the Armed Forces of the Philippines under his term.
"The AFP, particularly the Philippine Navy is getting a significant boost in its capabilities in keeping our archipelagic waters secure and safe," Alano said at the arrival ceremony held at Alava Wharf here.
The BRP Ramon Alcaraz sailed for two months from the United States, enduring rough and strong waves brought by bad weather. But Baldovino, commanding officer of BRP Ramon Alcaraz, said surpassing these challenges showed the competence and determination of the ship's officers and men.
"Dear Mr. President, we know that our work does not end here because we know this is only the beginning of a greater service to our country. Our officers and men are prepared to fulfil our duties," Baldovino said in his report to Aquino.
The Subic Bay Freeport would be the home port of BRP Ramon Alcaraz, and is also where the BRP Gregorio del Pilar is docked.
It is also the site of the so-called "access agreement" between the Philippines and the United States, which would allow the Americans to use facilities such as the seaport and airport used by the then Subic Naval Base of the US military.
The access agreement is still being threshed out by the Department of National Defence.
Subic is some 260 kilometres away from the disputed Panatag Shoal, which is considered part of Zambales province.
In an interview with reporters, Alano said the ship would be for maritime security and patrol in all areas of the archipelago and could even be used for humanitarian and disaster response.