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Philippine President Benigno Aquino claps as he attends the conference "Daylight Dialogue: The Good Governance Challenge" at the presidential Malacanang Palace in Manila July 15, 2014. REUTERS/Aaron Favila/Pool


MANILA (Reuters) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino told his country's neighbours on Thursday that efforts to modernise the military were not aimed at them but rather at strengthening national defence capabilities and tackling disasters.

Aquino has allocated 75 billion pesos (1 billion pounds) over five years to upgrade maritime security operations and humanitarian response, buying frigates, fighter-trainers and anti-submarine helicopters.

The Philippines is locked in a dispute with China over the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea and ships from the two countries have been engaged in a long series of cat-and-mouse confrontations.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have competing claims in the area believed to be rich in oil-and-gas deposits and marine resources.

The Philippines has one of the weakest militaries in the region, long focussed on fighting twin insurgencies from Maoist rebels and Muslim separatists. It operates a fleet of World War Two-vintage ships and Vietnam War-era helicopters and planes.

"Lest anyone accuse us of shifting to a more militaristic position, I must emphasise: our efforts seek to modernise the capabilities of our security sector to address the needs in human disaster response arenas and for our internal defence," Aquino told a security exhibition.

"None of these actions are meant to increase tensions in the region. Rather, they are meant to address our domestic problems and issues."

Since coming to power in 2010, Aquino has allocated more than 40 billion pesos to upgrade military capabilities, acquiring two U.S. cutters, refurbished UH-1H helicopters and 50,000 M4 assault rifles.

During the remaining two years of his mandate, he has promised to acquire a squadron of FA 50 fighter-trainers, eight combat utility helicopters, two long-range patrol aircraft, six close-air support aircraft, two frigates, three missile craft and two anti-submarine helicopters.

"We have no plans of slowing down," he said, noting that for some time, "the state of our military's equipment has been neglected".

The military also plans to install Israeli-made radar and a U.S.-made coastal surveillance system to raise awareness of sovereignty issues, particularly in the South China Sea.

The Philippines spends about 1 percent of its gross domestic product on defence, far less than China and other neighbours.

It also relies on its oldest ally and former colonial master, the United States, for its external defence posture.

In April, the Philippines and United States signed an agreement allowing wider access for U.S. forces at local military bases to enhance maritime security operations and humanitarian assistance and disaster response.

(Reporting By Manuel Mogato; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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