Philippines: Special Report

08 JUNE 2023

Philippines Flag

Photo by iSawRed / Unsplash

Country Report: What To Know

The Philippines is a middle power in the western hemisphere of the Asia Pacific. Domestically, the Mindanao region and other satellite islands are the most unstable and violence-prone areas of the country. The area is awash in rebellions and jihadi groups. Some of the former groups have, however, had some peace deals with the central government in recent times. Jihadists are mainly ISIS affiliates and a few dozen Abu Sayyaf fighters. Main threats against travelers include kidnappings and other indiscriminate incendiary activities.

Regionally and geopolitically, the maritime border disputes which involve China pose a significant security threat in The Philippines. This notwithstanding, China's increasing militarization of the dispute is balanced by cooperation between middle powers in the region and US military presence.

Despite these risks, the Philippines is not considered a high-risk country for commercial entities conducting business or international NGOs conducting program activities.

Security Situation: Context

The Philippines together with Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia  Malaysia and to some extent, Taiwan is a middle power in the Asia Pacific region. While the country is not considered to be a superpower, several factors make it strategically important not only to the region but to global peace and stability.  

The Philippines is a significant economy in the Pacific region. Growing above 5 percent of nominal Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and with a robust and dynamic market boosted by its large population size, the country holds much promise in the medium to long term. More importantly, the growth seems to be a shared one as the middle class in the country keeps increasing. It has consciously invested in human capital and infrastructure. According to the World Bank, the country falls under the upper middle-income category in terms of income per capita.

Again, the country in terms of geography is strategically located. An archipelago of over 7000 islands, The Philippines lies in a strategic region and sub-region in the Pacific Ocean. Its proximity to the South China Sea and the fact that it is a cluster of islands double as a strategic feature to its adversaries and allies. The Philippines is the main country at the western end of the Sea. Militarily, this cannot be ignored by powers in the region and beyond.

Historical Overview

The country further has an interesting history that makes it find itself in a relatively complex political and security situation. For thousands of years, people in the archipelago have interacted with China and are extensively influenced by its larger littoral neighbor. However, in the 19th century and earlier, the overwhelming presence of European powers altered or limited such influence. In the latter part of the century, the United States had become the most influential state in The Philippines.

Despite multiple challenges and strategic uncertainties, the country tries as much as possible to maintain relations albeit much closer to the US. This further makes the country an important one in Asia-Pacific security.

Domestically, Mindanao separatism was the most challenging security threat to The Philippines. Lasting for decades, it was a major national security concern for the country until recently when peace efforts are producing some positive results. The movement that had a Muslim support base despite its low-level intensity, has deprived some parts of the country, especially its base region of the necessary development.

The country also has had violent extremism within its borders for a long period starting in the early 1990s. The group Abu Sayyaf which terrorized the country for many years is currently on the back foot. More worryingly, Islamic State has had a franchise in the country in recent times. The ferocious attacks and kidnappings by these groups pose a serious threat to some regions in the country.  

While the country faces major domestic challenges to security including drug-related crimes and trafficking, in the recent decade and over it is its security interests in disputes over the South China Sea that have become paramount.

The disputes that have China as the most powerful sub-regional antagonist laying claim to large parts of the sea have transitioned from a mere statement of claims to more physical maritime tensions in recent years. It has become common for ships bearing the flag of The Philippines to be confronted by the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea. Chinese state state-backed fishing vessels have ventured into waters that are too close to Filipino territories.

With states like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Taiwan claiming significant sections of the sea, the situation is a lot more complicated. This notwithstanding, China's claims have become the most confrontational among all these countries.

China’s fast expansion in terms of economic and military might have meant that it has in the last decades taken some decisions and pursued some policies that threaten the security of almost all claimants in the disputes. The Philippines is a major actor whose interest is at stake in a major way.

China has artificially increased the physical sizes of some islands in the sea and militarized them for strategic advantage in a future confrontation.

Also, the Chinese Navy has become increasingly present in the region with its astronomical expansion in the last decades. The acquisition of aircraft carriers and other equipment has emboldened the regional power. This has meant that what used to be a defensive navy is currently the backbone of territory grabs in the region.

What has been the response of the Philippines?

In response, The Philippines has officially issued statements to reiterate and reassert its claims to the sea while being meticulous about destroying the relations between the two Asian states. With China's huge economy that close, the archipelago is careful not to be denied access. Thus, Manila sees a lot of reasons not to fall out completely with Beijing.

More strategically, the disputes have drawn Manila closer to its most important ally in the Asia Pacific—the United States. Knowing that the disputes could result in a conflagration the East Asian middle power has engaged with the US to increase the latter's presence in the region. Last March, the country gave the US military extra bases and facilities to enhance its defense. This was in addition to bases the US has operated in the country over the years.

The US-Philippines ties are not limited to the provision of bases. The country's military has been at the receiving end of important equipment and armament that will put it in a good position to defend its interest. While this is not enough for the country to defend its interest as a sole entity, it gives Manila relative capabilities that cannot be ignored by an adversary that has become significantly powerful.

Knowing that it cannot single-handedly face the growing capabilities and apparent military advantage China has in the region, Manila has doubled down on its relations with other middle powers in the region that shares a common interest with it. It has particularly got closer to Vietnam—another claimant in the South China Sea that has seen increasingly aggressive behavior from China. The relations between the Philippines and Vietnam, despite it being multifaceted, have military cooperation as a major area. This bilateral security relation is important because of two things among others.

Both Vietnam and the Philippines are currently allies of the United States in the region. Closer security ties mean the US would find it easy to augment its efforts in the region. In any confrontation, therefore, coordination between the three states would be relatively easy to achieve.

Geographically, Vietnam and the Philippines lie on opposite sides of the South China Sea—the latter to the East and the former to the West. In a confrontation, this could give the two sides a strategic advantage in respect of naval maneuverings.

Also, under ASEAN, the Philippines has on purpose built closer economic ties with emerging and established economies for its future and security purposes. By so doing the South Asian nation is building economic interdependence with these economies and over time reducing China's overwhelming economic influence. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are major partners in this direction.

High-Risk Zones and Regions

Domestically, high-risk zones are areas in the Mindanao region where violent extremism is active. ISIS affiliates operate in the region located in the south of the archipelago. Abu Sayyaf is active in the relatively small islands of Basilan and Jolo the farthest southwest of the country.

AUS Travel Safety Map

Assessed Operational Risk Levels for International Organizations

Commercial Entities

It appears that while many business organizations are concerned about the security of The Philippines, its positive economic climate and the fact that Abu Sayyaf is largely under control, have attracted investment in the country. Apart from areas where Mindanao separatists, ISIS affiliates and Abu Sayyaf are active, the country has largely been stable in terms of security and politics. The South China Sea disputes have done little to discourage investment in the archipelago. This could be for the good reason that the country has stronger allies that “guarantee” its security.

NGO Organizations

Despite the economic strides The Philippines has made in recent times and having a burgeoning middle class, it is still a developing country. This means that the country has a significant number of poor inhabitants with concomitant challenges. This has required robust NGO and charity activities. With robust law enforcement and relatively good internal security, the staff of NGOs is generally safe to operate. Here too, ISIS and Abu Sayyaf could pose threats with their kidnapping and ransom-seeking tactics. In some circumstances, workers of international organizations could face certain death.

Travel and Transportation Issues

Where traveling to danger zones cannot be avoided, security escorts would be highly recommended to travelers, especially foreign nationals. Apart from that other areas are safe except for rising levels of urban crime in major cities.

Country Monitoring: Events and Triggers

Escalation Triggers

  • Currently, the South China Sea dispute is mentioned among the potential sparks to a possible war in the Pacific that could even escalate into a global conflagration. The importance of the Pacific region to the global economy and stability, therefore, makes the situation sensitive.

    One of the triggers that may lead to an escalation of the situation is the problem in the Taiwan Strait north of the South China Sea. The determination of China to annex the island of Taiwan and make it a de facto Chinese territory has the potential to affect events in the South China Sea.

  • With the US being forthright with its position in Taiwan currently, the Biden administration has moved from “strategic ambiguity” where the White House had been ambivalent about its willingness to protect the island, to show more commitment to the defense of Taiwan. US actions in the region and how they are carried out could be major triggers for escalation. China has become more aggressive in the Taiwan Strait in recent weeks. If this results in any conflagration, the Philippines, due to issues in the South China Sea could automatically draw into the war.

  • Another trigger to an escalation is the activities of the PLAN in the region. Chinese military vessels are regularly harassing civilian and military vessels of states that have an interest in the sea. This could lead to a miscalculation and a concomitant overreaction that could be catastrophic for The Philippines and the entire region.

  • Domestically, the fidelity to peace agreements between the government and Moro separatists will be implemented will determine to a greater extent relative domestic stability. Delays and frustrations could become an issue.

De-escalation Triggers

  • Some analysts argue that despite PRC's current disposition and seemingly confrontational posturing, Beijing does not want a full-blown conflagration that could implicitly invite more formidable power. To this theory, China, despite its seemingly tacit support for Russia, is learning a lot about the failings of the “bear”. China might have realized that a relatively underrated force with the backing of unflinching allies could hold any formidable force a run for its money. This in itself is a de-escalatory factor.

  • Also, more bilateral and multilateral engagements in the region and a focus on soft power projections could help de-escalate the current situation where The Philippines could be drawn into any kind of confrontation. A couple of days ago, engagement between the PRC and the US and Vietnam helped de-escalate a situation that involved Chinese naval vessels in Vietnamese waters.

  • Furthermore, interdepartmental and inter-agency communications between China and the United States—two of the most consequential powers in the region—could be invaluable to de-escalating the situation which involves the Philippines. The recent snub by China of the US Secretary of Defense when the latter requested that he met with his Chinese counterpart was, therefore, potential escalators.



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