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Philippine military chief to focus on Spratlys row

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — A battle-scarred general took leadership of the underfunded Philippine military Monday, vowing to bolster his country's external defense so it could adequately respond to "untoward incidents" amid territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

The 125,000-member Philippine military, one of Asia's weakest, has been struggling to modernize its dilapidated air force and navy and train its forces due to a lack of funds. President Benigno Aquino III recently said he would seek modern fighter jets from longtime ally Washington when he visits next year.

Army Lt. Gen. Jessie Dellosa, who took over the military leadership in austere ceremonies led by Aquino on Monday, said recent developments in the South China Sea — obviously referring to renewed territorial spats in the potentially oil-rich region — have made upgrading external defenses inevitable for the Philippines.

"It compels us to look into our maritime security deeply," Dellosa said in his speech. "Development of navy and air force bases and facilities to efficiently respond to untoward incidents is something we can no longer ignore."

Dellosa formerly was an army combat officer and was wounded twice while battling Muslim guerrillas and al-Qaida-linked militants in the southern Philippines. He also led an elite unit that helped Aquino's mother, the late pro-democracy Philippine leader Corazon Aquino, subdue coup attempts.

Dellosa replaced Gen. Eduardo Oban Jr., who focused on battling graft and corruption in the military during his stint. Dellosa said he would also wage "an all-out-war" against military corruption.

Already spread thinly while dealing with raging Muslim and communist insurgencies, the military began to focus on external defense specially after Filipino officials accused Chinese government vessels of repeatedly intruding into Philippine-claimed territories in and near the South China Sea's disputed Spratly Islands in the first half of the year.

Philippine and Vietnamese authorities also accused Chinese vessels of trying to sabotage oil explorations within their territorial waters, an allegation Beijing has denied.

China, the Philippines and Vietnam, along with Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei claim the South China Sea and its cluster of islands, islets, reefs and coral outcrops partly or in its entirety. The region is believed to be sitting atop vast deposits of oil and natural gas and also straddle busy sealanes.

The South China Sea has long been regarded as Asia's next flashpoint for conflict.

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By JIM GOMEZ | AP

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