Eyeing China, the Philippines wants to buy its first attack submarine

Amid rising tensions with China, the Philippines is planning to buy its first submarine.

The Philippine government says this reflects a shift from internal counterinsurgency against rebels to external defense of the nation’s sovereignty as China’s military power grows in the South China Sea. But some experts question whether buying a sub makes sense given more cost-effective weapons to counter China, or whether it will even happen.

“There are a lot of folks inside and outside of the Philippine Navy saying, ‘maybe this isn’t the best use of our money,” Greg Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, told Business Insider.

In February, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. announced that his nation would buy a submarine, as part of a long-term modernization of the Philippine armed forces. A Philippine Navy spokesman added that this reflected the Philippines shifting from internal to external defense. “We may not be a large navy … but we would have a navy that will take care of our territorial rights and sovereignty,” he said.

China and its neighbors have been at loggerheads for the past decade, after Beijing claimed sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, including islands and resource-rich waters. Multiple nations — including Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines — reject those claims, as did an international tribunal in 2016.

In recent months, the Philippines and China have clashed over an unlikely prize: the Sierra Madre, a rusting ex-American amphibious landing ship from World War II, which the Philippine Navy grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert its rights over the area. China has tried to stop the Philippines military from resupplying the small garrison on the ship, including ramming Philippine ships, and using water cannon, lasers, and even axes and knives.

However, Poling doesn’t believe that the sub acquisition is tied to this incident. Plans to buy a sub date back to the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist whose attempts to embrace China sputtered. “The Philippines is in the last third of a 15-year military modernization plan to move from an internal counterterrorism-focused force to an external defense force,” Poling said. “And that mainly means pumping more money into acquisitions for the navy and air force.”

Though an American ally, it couldn’t afford or operate the nuclear-powered models that the US builds. France, Spain, South Korea and Italy, which build diesel-electric subs, have expressed interest, the Philippine Navy has said. Diesel-electric submarines are relatively tough to detect before they surface to intake fresh air, and a small number of them could complicate China’s efforts to encroach on atolls and islands by force.

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