In July 2018, for the first time in its modern history, the Philippines publicly released its National Security Strategy (NSS). Against the backdrop of a seemingly unconventional approach to foreign policy, the document nevertheless provides an insight on how Manila—particularly the security establishment—perceives the geostrategic environment, as well as how to navigate the challenging currents of international relations.
“The Philippines’ current external security environment,” the NSS provides, “is marked by increased uncertainty and unpredictability.” Driven by the rise of China, the rivalry of major powers has been identified by the document as “the most important long-term strategic concern” of the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. The NSS also recognizes the geographical vulnerability of the country. Situated between the South China Sea (SCS) and the broader Pacific ocean—essentially the grand chessboard of Washington and Beijing—the Philippines, particularly its location and natural resources, have “provided a strong temptation to expansionist powers.”
Cognizant of its security environment, the NSS identifies the SCS as “the foremost security challenge to the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity.” While the current Philippine administration has openly expressed its affection for the Chinese leadership, the strategy document describes Beijing’s presence in the SCS as “aggressive,” which is partly spawned by the Asian power’s “increasing demand for energy resources, and renewed stirrings of nationalism.” As a result, the NSS admits that Manila “suddenly [gave] the same attention to territorial defense as it does to internal security threats.” The document candidly acknowledges that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is “one of the weakest in Asia” which places “doubt [in Manila’s] ability to protect and defend [the] sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the country.
To address these concerns, the NSS underscored not only the importance of developing the AFP’s “credible defense capability,” but also strengthening its alliance and partnerships in the region. Shortly after coming to power in 2016, the current Philippine government has repeatedly threatened to downgrade Manila’s alliance with Washington. Indeed, in his first presidential trip to China, Rodrigo Duterte announced the Philippines’s “separation” from the United States (US). Critical of US foreign policy, Duterte also threatened to abrogate the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Washington.
By contrast, the NSS has a more nuanced assessment of the US. Noting that America is the world’s “only superpower” and the Philippines’ “sole defense treaty ally,” the strategy document emphasized that US security presence in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region is a “stabilizing force.” Mindful of US President Donald Trump’s vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific,” the NSS reaffirmed Manila’s commitment to work with Washington on a whole range of security and economic concerns.
Together with their US counterparts, Philippine officials have worked, with less fanfare, to improve bilateral relations. In May 2018, key figures from the Philippines’ national security apparatus, led by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, visited the Hawaii-based US Indo-Pacific Command. The Philippine delegation included the foreign, defense, and interior secretaries, as well as the ambassadors for the US and the United Nations (UN). During the September 2018 meeting of the Mutual Defense Board and Security Engagement Board (MDB-SEB), the allies agreed to conduct 281 security cooperation activities for 2019, an increase over 2018. In October 2018, US and Philippine marines conducted the “Kaagapay ng mga Mandirigma ng Dagat” (KAMANDAG) or “Cooperation of Warriors of the Sea” amphibious landing exercise. Later that month Admiral John M. Richardson, US Navy Chief of Naval Operations, visited the Philippines. His itinerary included a trip to Palawan, where Admiral Richardson received a SCS situation briefing from Lt. Gen. Rozzano Briguez, Commander of the AFP’s Western Command—the military unit in charge of defending the Philippines’ territory in SCS.
Washington has also supported the AFP Modernization Program (AFPMP). In 2018 alone, the US provided the Philippines with Scan Eagle Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) and the Special Airborne Mission Installation and Response (SABIR) system, both of which aim to boost the intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities of the AFP. In addition to providing the Philippine Marine Corps with personal protective equipment, the US also announced that it will transfer four OV-10 Bronco light attack planes to the Philippine Air Force (PAF). In an apparent move to further improve relations, US Defense Secretary James Mattis announced the returned of the Balangiga Bells to the Philippines. Duterte has publicly criticized Washington over the issue of the bells, which he described as reminders of “gallantry and heroism” against “American colonizers.” On the economic front, the allies have also agreed to negotiate a free trade agreement.
Beyond the Philippines-US alliance, the NSS called on enhancing ties with security partners. Japan and Viet Nam are the Philippines’ “strategic partners,” while Australia is a “comprehensive partner.” Acknowledging Tokyo’s “proactive contribution to peace” initiative, the strategy document reaffirms the “strengthened strategic partnership” between the Philippines and Japan. I have argued elsewhere that Duterte has thus far sustained his predecessor’s initiative of forging close security cooperation between Manila and Tokyo. Indeed, in 2018, Japan has completed the turnover of all of the ten multi-role response vessels (MRRVs) to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), an initiative under the Maritime Safety and Capability Improvement Project funded by the Japan International Cooperation Agency. Participating in the Philippines-US KAMANDAG exercises, Japan donated military training aircraft to the Philippine Navy (PN), as well as spare parts and maintenance equipment to the PAF. President Duterte, who declared that the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership has entered a “golden age,” personally welcomed a visiting Japanese flotilla—which included helicopter carrier JS Kaga (DDH-184)—last September 2018.
While not explicitly mentioned in the NSS, the Philippines-Viet Nam strategic partnership is a crucial security relationship between two ASEAN member-states. Both SCS claimants, the two countries have developed confidence-building measures, particularly the military interaction in Southwest Cay—previously occupied by the Philippines and is currently under Viet Nam’s control—where officers from both countries play sports and share information on topics like maritime security.
The NSS identifies Australia, along with other states like India, South Korea, and Russia, as “crucial in the peace, stability, and prosperity of the broader Indo-Asia-Pacific region.” Similar to Viet Nam, the Philippines-Australia comprehensive partnership was not explicitly mentioned in the NSS. Nevertheless, Manila’s partnership with Canberra is crucial as both are part of the US-led hub-and-spokes system of bilateral alliances in the region. Moreover, Australia is the only country, apart from the US, with which the Philippines has a Visiting Forces Agreement.
Strengthening the Alliance and Partnerships
Recognizing that the Philippines is a relatively small country with limited geopolitical options, the NSS underscores the importance of Manila’s alliance and partnerships in promoting national security. In furtherance of the strengthening these key relationships, Manila may consider the following options.
First, a careful assessment and recalibration of Manila’s strategic communication should promote a perception of coherence and lessen possible misperceptions of its foreign policy. Mindful of the US-China rivalry, the Philippines should not be viewed as abandoning one power over another through its pronouncements. Neither should Manila issue statements that could diminish opportunities for managing foreign policy challenges, particularly the SCS issue.
Second, the implementation of the EDCA must be fast-tracked. While the first major project under EDCA was initiated at Basa Air Base in April, broader implementation of the pact appears to have been delayed. As other observers have argued, further postponements—particularly at Antonio Bautista Air Base in Palawan, which is near the Spratlys—means that Washington may find it challenging to assist its ally in the SCS if needed.
Third, the Philippines may continue to negotiate a VFA with Japan to further promote closer security cooperation and interoperability. A similar framework may also be explored with Viet Nam.
At eve of the 2018 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit, European Council President Donald Tusk, in response to the criticisms from President Trump, reminded Washington to “appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many.” Tusk also called on Europe “spend more on your [defense], because everyone respects an ally that is well-prepared and equipped.” The same message is also true for the members of a network of alliances and partnerships—particularly for relatively smaller and weaker states, as well as their leaders—in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, a region facing immense foreign policy challenges against the backdrop of major powers competing for geopolitical preeminence.
*Mico A. Galang is a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP). The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the official position of NDCP.