It’s not often one’s stars align, but the Philippines might be one of the rare examples.
China’s irredentist behavior in the South China Sea is a clear and present danger to Philippine maritime sovereignty and rights. And there is more or less a consensus — not just among the policy elites in Manila straddling across the civilian and military leadership, but also the population at large — about the need to safeguard those interests.
But if one of the aligned stars is not shining as brightly as it should be, it is the lack of funding for the Philippine military to acquire what it needs. Still, part of the armed forces’ shopping list has been gradually fulfilled — at a faster pace and in a wider scope presently compared to the past.
The Philippines’ national security focus in the past did not particularly fixate on problems in the South China Sea. Before Benigno Aquino III became president, his predecessors tended to oscillate between maritime disputes and internal security threats. Then, the emphasis was overall slanted toward the latter as the country grappled with militant threats emanating from various violent extremist groups and communist insurgents.
The April 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident with China served as a wake-up call to reinvigorate the national focus on the South China Sea. The Aquino administration at the time pushed for the Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Plan, which managed to affect some of the key acquisition projects, such as the guided-missile frigate and FA-50 lightweight fighter jet purchases from South Korea.
Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency appeared to shift focus back to internal security, in large part due to his desire to downplay South China Sea tensions and promote an economic partnership with Beijing. Yet his policies on China and the South China Sea disputes failed to impress the increasingly skeptical domestic audience.
In early 2021, the Duterte administration presided over a major standoff in Whitsun Reef, also claimed by China. Nevertheless, to his credit, Duterte had continued with his predecessor’s military buildup plan, implementing preexisting programs while adding new ones. The COVID-19 interregnum delayed the process. Still, the armed forces managed to induct significant new capabilities, including the country’s first supersonic anti-ship cruise missile — the BrahMos — acquired from India.
The present administration under Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr., or “Bongbong” as he was affectionately called, builds on the legacy left behind by his predecessors. His administration handled the South China Sea problem with a more decisive, cleareyed perspective, having apparently learned from the past experience of failed rapprochement with Beijing over the disputes.
Following the Chinese lasing incident in the South China Sea last month, Bongbong made a clarion call for the Philippine armed forces to focus on external defense. Prior to that, building on Duterte’s rescinding of his plan to scrap the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, Bongbong went on to preside over the recent agreement between Manila and Washington on expanding American military access to Philippine bases under the Aquino-era Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.
A joint patrol in the South China Sea with Australia, Japan and the U.S. is also in the works, which was an unthinkable prospect during the Duterte administration.
Within Manila policy circles, there is consensus on the extant challenge posed by China in the South China Sea, but not necessarily on the approach. Notably, there is some resistance within the Senate against foreign military presence in the country, including expanded American access under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. If there is anything the Philippines can count on as internal policy consensus, it would be to persist with the modernization of both the military and the Coast Guard. This is where funding hurdles are not easy to overcome.
While the Philippine economy held up admirably during the trying pandemic years, uncertainties loom ahead, especially given the protracted nature of the war in Ukraine and its impact on the global economy, including inflation that is widely and deeply felt in the Southeast Asian country.
This is very plausibly going to bear significant impact on the military modernization plan, now into its final phase, dubbed Horizon 3. The military has shaken off its vintage label by inducting its first missile armaments, and the maritime forces especially are increasingly populated with newer assets. Recent years had been a bumper harvest for the Navy with the purchase of new corvettes and offshore patrol vessels all sourced from South Korea.
However, financial constraints mean that other outstanding, big-ticket purchases — particularly submarines — have to be put on the back burner for now. Seen altogether with accompanying moves to spruce up the military; support infrastructure, such as the Subic Bay facilities; and concert acquisition programs across the services, it is safe to conclude that the Philippines now has a militarily readier posture in the South China Sea.
That said, it is certainly still a work in progress for the armed forces. Politically, for now, the prevailing sentiments in Manila appear geared toward facing the Chinese maritime challenge. Violent extremism and insurgent threats continue to loom in the background, which may force a shift in focus back to internal security. Given the uncertain funding situation, there is no way for the military to quickly boost its capabilities and, in any manner, face up to Beijing’s military might alone in the South China Sea.
Hardware acquisition, evolving military doctrine to better assimilate new operational realities and acquired capabilities, enhanced interagency coordination and collaboration among security agencies, and closer defense and security engagements with likeminded external parties need to go hand in hand so as to help Manila secure its interests in the South China Sea.
Collin Koh is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, where he specializes in maritime security and naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific region.