Continuity And Change: The Evolution Of Philippine National Security Policy – Analysis


In August 2023, the administration of Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr released its National Security Policy (NSP). For the third consecutive time, the Philippine national government released such a document – the first was in 2011 under the late President Benigno S. Aquino III, and the second was in 2017 during the Rodrigo R. Duterte presidency. 

There are differences in the domestic and foreign circumstances around which the three NSPs were released. In this regard, how has the Philippine national security policy evolved over the years? What are the areas of continuity and change in these documents?

Comprehensive Understanding of National Security

The three NSPs all adopt a comprehensive understanding of national security. The 2011 NSP defined national security as the “state or condition wherein the national interests, the well-being of our people and institutions, and  our  sovereignty  and  territorial  integrity  are  protected and enhanced.” This was slightly revised in the two succeeding documents which both defined national security as: “a state or condition wherein the people’s welfare, well-being, ways of life; government and its institutions; territorial integrity; sovereignty; and core values are protected and enhanced.”

Indeed, the three NSPs discuss a whole range of traditional and non-traditional security issues. Apart from protecting the country’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty, the documents also discuss and provide guidance on addressing issues as health, environment, food, culture, among others. 

From “Elements” to “Interests”

The 2011 NSP specifically identified “national interests” as part of the definition of national security. However, the said document did not further elaborate what those interests are. Instead, the 2011 NSP identified seven “elements” of national security, which are socio-political stability, territorial integrity, economic solidarity, ecological balance, cultural cohesiveness, moral-spiritual consensus, and peace and harmony. 

The 2017 and 2023 NSPs removed the word “national interest” in its definition of national security. Ironically, despite omitting the term, the two documents reframed the “elements of national security” as “national security interests.” The 2017 NSP articulated eight such interests: public safety, law and order and justice; socio-political stability; economic solidarity and sustainable development; territorial integrity; ecological balance; cultural cohesiveness; moral and spiritual consensus; and international peace and cooperation. 

The 2023 NSP unveiled seven national security interests: national sovereignty and territorial integrity; political stability, peace, and public safety; economic strength and solidarity; national identity, harmony, and culture of excellence; ecological balance and climate change resiliency; cyber, information, and cognitive security; and regional and international peace and stability. 

Shifting Priorities, Changing Threat Perceptions? 

Unlike other countries, the Philippines faces not only external security challenges but also internal security threats, primarily from insurgency movements. The Aquino III administration came into power at a time when the country was still trying to bring the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) back on track, following the Philippine Supreme Court’s decision to declare the proposed Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD) with the insurgent group as unconstitutional. President Aquino III also succeeded an administration that was marred by corruption allegations, and failed military coups

It is therefore no surprise that under the 2011 NSP, the top national security priority of the Aquino III administration was “to promote internal socio-political stability” by promoting the “peace process as the centerpiece of [the government’s] internal security program.” In this context, the security sector was tasked to “assist in creating the enabling environment to win the hearts and minds of those with valid grievances and retain the allegiance of the rest of the citizenry.” The Aquino III administration succeeded in negotiating the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB) with the MILF in 2014. 

However, developments during its term in office would eventually change the threat perceptions of the Aquino III administration. China’s efforts to advance its massive territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS) became more apparent during President Aquino III’s term. The 2011 NSP, which noted that the rise of China has “generate[d] policy considerations” in the region, called for ways to “capacitate the Philippines to exercise full sovereignty over its territory.”

It was not until the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident that the prioritization of the security threats appeared to have change. The incident, in which the Philippines effectively lost control of Scarborough Shoal to People’s Republic of China (PRC), led the Aquino III administration to push for the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program (RAFPMP), with the aim of transitioning the orientation of the military from internal security to territorial defense. The Aquino III administration also filed an arbitration case against Beijing in The Hague, and forged closer security relations with the US, the presence of which in the region was described by the 2011 NSP as a “positive stabilizing force.” 

Following PRC’s creation of artificial islands in the SCS, the then-National Security Advisor Cesar Garcia declared in 2015 that: “it is now very clear that our territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea has in fact overtaken all security issues in our hierarchy of national security issues.” Thus, coming into office with the primary agenda centered on internal security, the Aquino III administration increasingly focused on external threats. 

The election of Rodrigo R. Duterte as successor to President Aquino III seemingly marked a significant change in the Philippines’ national security policy, particularly with respect to priorities. While the Aquino III administration focused on external security, the Duterte administration shifted its priority to domestic law and order concerns. Indeed, the top national security interest articulated by the 2017 NSP is public safety, law and order and justice. This is in line with the Duterte government’s campaign against illegal drugs and criminality

Nonetheless, I have argued elsewhere that despite President Duterte’s efforts to shakeup Philippine strategic policy, the 2017 NSP nevertheless included the identification of the SCS dispute as the “the foremost security challenge to the Philippines’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Seemingly echoing the 2011 NSP, the 2017 NSP also declared that – notwithstanding Duterte’s anti-U.S. sentiments – the U.S. presence in the region is a “stabilizing force.” Such efforts at policy continuity may be credited to other elements of the Philippine polity, such as the defense establishment which, as one observer pointed out, “managed to preserve the foundations of its full-spectrum military cooperation with Washington, while continuing to monitor and oppose China’s creeping presence across Philippine-claimed waters.”

Early in his administration, President Duterte sought to forge a closer geopolitical confluence with Beijing and to “separate” the Philippines from the U.S. Despite President Duterte’s efforts to end the military exercises with the U.S., withdraw from the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and terminate the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), such initiatives were never fully implemented. Indeed, by the time Duterte left office, the Philippines-U.S. alliance remained intact

President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr came into office when the U.S.-China strategic competition has intensified, and with China becoming more assertive in the SCS. Initially expected to share President Duterte’s foreign policy views, the Marcos Jr administration appears to have recalibrated Philippine strategic policy. Indeed, the 2023 NSP clearly prioritizes national sovereignty and territorial integrity as the top national security interest. The current security policy of the Philippines underscores the “[w]idening polarities and the sharpening strategic competition between the United States and China are realities permeating the global landscape.”

In the 2011 NSP, the Aquino III administration declared that Manila is “committed to…the preservation of world order.” In the 2023 NSP, because of the “[h]eightened rivalries among the major powers” as can be seen with the potential flashpoints in the SCS, Taiwan, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Marcos Jr administration observes that there appears to be the “weakening of the rules-based international order that has served as a guarantor of peace and continued economic growth and development despite the creation of even more lethal weapons since World War II.” Indeed, the threats to the rules-based order can be seen in virtually all domains of warfare, including cyber, which has now been articulated as a national security interest. The 2023 NSP also emphasizes that the Manila needs to focus on threats that “seek to alter the status quo in ways that harm Philippine national interests below the threshold of armed conflict.” 

To note, the three most recent Philippine Presidents have all released NSPs shortly before or after they enter their second year in office. As pointed out earlier, all documents espouse a comprehensive view of national security. Indeed, all NSPs discuss a whole range of traditional and non-traditional security issues. The main difference in the NSPs is the prioritization of security issues across administrations.   

Quo Vadis?

The NSP is a major policy guidance for the defense and security establishment of the country. To its credit, the Duterte administration has used the 2017 NSP as a key basis for the formulation of the 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS), 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS), and the 2019 National Military Strategy (NMS). The NSP is also a communications tool which the Philippine government has used and continues to use to convey to the international community its assessment of strategic environment and its security objectives. Indeed, it is also an instrument for diplomatic signaling. 

Moreover, the NSP also offers a window as to the world view of the current administration and its aspirations for the country. Mindful of the economic and political conditions of the country at the time, the 2011 NSP described the Philippines as “developing country” with minimal resources for it “to assert itself in the international community.” Although relatively silent on this matter, the 2017 NSP nevertheless stated that Manila is “committed to the promotion of global peace, development, and humanitarianism.” The 2023 NSP sets a rather different aspiration for the country compared to its two predecessors: “to become a Middle Power in a multi-polar world.” In other words, the three NSPs have continuously recognized the Philippines’ vulnerability as a relatively small power, with the most recent iteration of the document advancing a goal in which the country could play a greater role in the region. 

Efforts to draft and publish an NSP is an important initiative. However, implementing the NSP by ensuring that government resources are aligned with the priorities set forth in the strategic policy document is another matter. Indeed, as one Southeast Asian diplomat pointed out: “Policy is implementation and implementation is policy.” 

Mico A. Galang

Mico A. Galang is a member of the Young Leaders Program, Pacific Forum (Hawaii, United States) and was a researcher at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP).

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