By Gillian M. Cortez
Reporter

THE Philippines took delivery of its first ever guided missile frigate at the weekend to protect its seas against threats, the presidential palace said, as China’s neighbors race to empower their Coast Guard fleets amid increasing tensions in the South China Sea.

“The arrival of the country’s most advanced warship, delivered during this administration, is a testament to President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s commitment to modernize our armed forces,” his spokesman Harry L. Roque said in a statement on Sunday.

“This forms part of the national leadership’s initiative to enhance the country’s defense capabilities to secure our seas against current threats,” he added.

China claims sovereignty over more than 80% of the South China Sea based on its so-called nine-dash line drawn on a 1940s map.

It has been building artificial islands in the disputed Spratly Islands and setting up installations including several runways.

Called the BRP Jose Rizal, the warship arrived in Subic Bay north of Manila, the capital on Saturday and is the first of two frigates acquired by the Philippine Navy from South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries.

The second frigate, the BRP Antonio Luna, will be delivered by the end of the year. The purchase of both ships are under the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ P300-billion modernization program.

“We consider this a breakthrough in the Philippine Navy’s transformation journey in our goal of building a strong and credible maritime force,” Mr. Roque said.

The Philippines this month protested China’s creation of two new districts — Nansha and Xisha — in the South China Sea because these are supposedly part of Philippine territory and sea zones.

Rival Southeast Asian claimant nations and the United States have criticized China’s recent assertive moves in the disputed waterway as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr. Duterte has sought closer investment and trade ties with Beijing, including over resources in the disputed sea, since he assumed office in 2016.

In February, he officially notified the US of his decision to end the visiting forces agreement — a two-decade-old military agreement with the US on the deployment of troops for war games — after the US visa of Senator Ronald M. de la Rosa, his former police chief, was revoked.

His predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III, sued China before an international arbitration tribunal over its territorial claims, and won. He also strengthened Philippine alliance with the US to try to check China’s expansion in the main waterway.

Aside from China and the Philippines, other claimants to the main waterway are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.