What is Happening in the Philippines?

July 2024 Assessment

Date: 02 JUL 2024
Location: Philippines
Authors: AH, GF
Contributors: GSAT
GSAT Lead: MF

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Key Points

  • Philippine and China Maritime Tensions in the South China Sea Continues

  • Maritime Impact and Implications on Philippine Border and Regional Boundaries

  • Economic Impact on Industry and Free Market Access of the Philippines

  • Pogo sites near Philippine military bases likened to Trojan horse, increasing security risks for businesses and operations

  • Rise in Crime, Terrorism, Civil Unrest, and Kidnappings

  • Canlaon Volcano in Negros Island Erupts after 7 years

Summary

The maritime tension between the Philippines and China centers around territorial disputes in the South China Sea continues. Both nations lay claim to overlapping areas, particularly around the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines has accused China of aggressive actions, including the use of water cannons and dangerous maneuvers to obstruct Philippine vessels. Recently, on June 17, 2024, a confrontation occurred near second Thomas Shoal where the Philippines accused the China Coast Guard (CCG) of behaving like pirates, claiming that Chinese personnel armed with knives and spears boarded their resupply vessels. One Philippine sailor who was also a seal team member got injured with a finger mutilated and harassed and several Filipino vessels got damaged. The Philippines condemned the aggressive actions, while China denied any wrongdoing asserting that their actions were professional and restrained. This incident is the latest in a series of maritime tensions between the two nations in the South China Sea. Previously, in late 2023 and early 2024 there were multiple collisions between Philippine and Chinese ships centering South China Sea that also highlighted  ongoing frictions​​​​ between these countries. Despite repeated calls for peaceful resolution, China's actions in the South China Sea, such as building artificial islands and militarizing the region, have exacerbated tensions​​. On the other hand the U.S. has reaffirmed its commitment to defend the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Efforts to manage these tensions have included diplomatic engagements and agreements to ensure peaceful resolutions. Both countries have committed to maintaining peace and stability in the region, as evidenced by high-level meetings and mutual statements advocating for non-military solutions​​. Despite these diplomatic overtures, the risk of escalation remains, given the strategic importance of the South China Sea and the military capabilities of the involved nations.

The maritime disputes in the South China Sea have significant implications for the Philippines' borders and regional boundaries. The contested waters are not only a national security concern but also affect regional stability, involving other countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei, which also have claims in the area. The Philippines' strategic partnership with the United States has been strengthened in response to Chinese threats, with joint military exercises such as Balikatan emphasizing this alliance​​​​. Apart from military exercises, this partnership includes enhanced defense cooperation, aimed at ensuring the security of regional boundaries and maintaining freedom of navigation in international waters​​. The presence of foreign military forces in the region underscores the critical nature of these waters and the potential for conflict if diplomatic measures fail.

Thus continuous presence of Chinese vessels in contested areas and their aggressive tactics pose risks to the maritime boundaries and sovereignty of the Philippines and its neighbors such as Taiwan, Malaysia and so on, leading to heightened military readiness and potential conflicts in the region​​​​. The conflict involves competing claims over islands, reefs, and maritime boundaries. China asserts historical rights based on the “nine-dash line,” which encompasses a large portion of the sea. However, the Philippines, along with other neighboring countries, contests these claims, relying on international law, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS defines exclusive economic zones (EEZs) and territorial waters, which guide the Philippines’ position in the dispute. Furthermore, the Philippines-China territorial dispute has implications for regional stability in several ways as follows:

1.   Security Concerns: The ongoing tensions increase the risk of military incidents in the South China Sea. Frequent naval patrols, territorial claims, and military exercises by both countries contribute to instability. Recent collisions between Philippine and Chinese vessels near contested reefs indicate the potential for conflict escalation.

2.   Economic Impact: The contested waters are rich in natural resources, including fisheries and oil reserves. Disputes over fishing rights and energy exploration strain economic relations and hinder regional development. Filipino fishing communities suffer from Chinese obstructions and broader economic stability is threatened by disruptions to international trade routes.

3.   Diplomatic Strain: The dispute strains diplomatic relations among neighboring countries. ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) nations have struggled to present a unified stance, affecting regional cooperation. The Philippines’ strategic alignment with the U.S. and participation in joint military exercises further complicate diplomatic dynamics with the region.

4.   Great Power Rivalry: The involvement of external powers, such as the U.S., adds complexity. The U.S. supports the Philippines’ claims and conducts freedom of navigation operations, which China perceives as provocative. This dynamic intensifies the geopolitical rivalry in the region with implications for broader international relations.

5.   Maritime Code of Conduct: Efforts to establish a binding code of conduct for the South China Sea have been slow. A comprehensive agreement could enhance stability by clarifying rules and preventing escalation. However, progress is hindered by the conflicting interests and actions of the involved parties, highlighting the need for continued diplomatic engagement.

In summary, the dispute affects security, economics, diplomacy, and regional dynamics, making it a critical issue for stability in the Southeast Asia region.

The economic impact of the maritime tensions on the Philippines is profound. The South China Sea is a vital commercial waterway, with significant implications for trade and industry. Disruptions in this area can affect global supply chains and the free market access of the Philippines. The tensions have led to increased shipping costs and potential rerouting of maritime traffic to avoid conflict zones, impacting the cost of goods and overall economic stability. Furthermore, the uncertainty in the region affects investor confidence. Businesses operating in the Philippines and surrounding areas are wary of the potential for escalation and its effects on trade and economic activities. The maritime disputes have thus become a critical factor in economic planning and foreign policy for the Philippines and its regional partners​​.

The presence of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) near military bases has raised significant security concerns. These sites, likened to a 'Trojan horse,' pose potential espionage risks and have been a point of contention between security agencies and business operators​​. The proximity of these gaming operations to military installations increases the vulnerability of sensitive information being compromised, leading to heightened security measures and scrutiny. This situation has implications for the operational security of businesses and the overall safety of the region. The government's response has included tightening regulations and increasing surveillance of POGO sites to mitigate the risks posed by their location near strategic military assets. These measures aim to protect national security while balancing the economic benefits derived from the gaming industry.

The Philippines has seen a rise in crime, terrorism, civil unrest, and kidnappings recently, impacting both local communities and foreign nationals. Notable incidents include the kidnapping of tourists by police officers, highlighting issues within law enforcement and the need for reform​​. These events contribute to a climate of insecurity, affecting tourism and foreign investment. In May 2024, the US Department of State in their travel advisory elevated to caution levels, advising travelers to exercise increased caution due to the risk of terrorism and civil unrest. This advisory underscores the volatile security situation and the challenges faced by the Philippines in ensuring the safety of its citizens and visitors​​. The rise in such incidents necessitates heightened law enforcement measures and community engagement to address the underlying causes and enhance public safety.

After seven years of dormancy, the Canlaon Volcano on Negros Island erupted, prompting authorities to raise the alert level​​. The eruption has significant implications for the local communities and the environment, with potential impacts on air travel and agriculture. The volcanic activity underscores the need for disaster preparedness and response strategies to mitigate the effects on affected populations. Authorities have been closely monitoring the situation, issuing evacuation orders and providing assistance to residents in the vicinity of the volcano. The eruption serves as a reminder of the natural hazards faced by the Philippines and the importance of maintaining vigilance and readiness to respond to such events. The collaboration between local and national agencies is crucial in managing the immediate and long-term impacts of volcanic eruptions on the region.

Future Outlook

The future safety and security landscape for the Philippines is poised to be significantly impacted by the ongoing maritime tensions with China in the South China Sea. The disputes over territories like the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal are likely to continue, with both nations reinforcing their claims through various aggressive measures. China's construction of artificial islands and military fortifications, coupled with its assertive maneuvers, such as using water cannons against Philippine vessels, underscore the high potential for conflict escalation but not close to an act of war. It is likely that China will continue to block the Philippines from resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal with non-lethal but aggressive tactics until the vessel sinks. Despite diplomatic engagements aimed at peaceful resolutions, the strategic importance of the South China Sea and the military capabilities of the involved nations mean that the risk of an armed conflict remains a serious concern. The U.S. commitment to defend the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) further complicates the regional dynamics, potentially drawing in a broader geopolitical conflict involving major powers like the U.S. and China​.

The contested waters in the Philippines' borders and regional boundaries not only challenge national security but also impact regional stability, affecting countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Brunei. Therefore, the implications of these maritime disputes extend beyond national security to affect regional stability and economic activities. The South China Sea is a critical commercial waterway, and any disruption can severely impact global supply chains and the free market access of the Philippines. Increased shipping costs and potential rerouting of maritime traffic to avoid conflict zones are expected to affect the cost of goods and overall economic stability. Furthermore, the persistent uncertainty in the region is likely to deter investor and donor confidence, making businesses wary of the potential for escalation and its effects on trade, economic and international development activities. Thus, the Philippines might continue to enhance its relationship with the United States through regular joint military exercises, defense corporations and multiple treaties in order to protect its maritime boundaries, maintain freedom of navigation and keep international trade open to all.

Another significant security concern stems from the presence of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGOs) near military bases, which pose potential espionage risks. These sites have been linked to illegal activities, including human trafficking and financial scams, exacerbating security challenges. The discovery of these operations near sensitive military installations heightens the risk of compromised information, leading to increased scrutiny and regulatory measures by the government. Such incidents leading to possible breach of information and followed by escalated security measures (during raids by law enforcement agencies) underscores the trustworthiness of businesses and international development organizations who are operating in the Philippines. ​ Additionally, the rise in crime, terrorism, civil unrest, and kidnappings presents a growing threat to public safety and security. The kidnapping of tourists and other criminal activities have highlighted the need for significant reforms within law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Department of State's elevated travel advisory for the Philippines underscores the volatile security environment, which poses challenges for the safety of both citizens and international visitors. The government must prioritize enhancing law enforcement measures, community engagement, and international cooperation to address these issues effectively. Strengthening the rule of law and improving public safety mechanisms will be crucial in restoring confidence among residents and foreign investors alike​​​​.

In conclusion, the Philippines faces a multifaceted security landscape shaped by maritime tensions, economic vulnerabilities, and internal security challenges. The government's strategic alliances, particularly with the United States, and its proactive measures in surveillance, law enforcement, and disaster preparedness will be pivotal in navigating these challenges. The future outlook necessitates continued diplomatic engagement, enhanced defense cooperation, and robust disaster preparedness to mitigate impacts on security, economy, and overall stability.

Safety and Security Recommendations

Multinational entities are encouraged to follow the below measures and enhance their overall situational awareness; by doing so they can further mitigate risks and operate more safely in the Philippine's complex security landscape.

  • Regularly evaluate the security situation in high-risk areas like the National Capital Region and Mindanao and develop location-specific security plans with detailed risk assessments and mitigation strategies.

  • Establish detailed protocols for travel, accommodation, communication, and emergency responses, ensuring all staff are well-trained and equipped to handle potential threats effectively.

  • Build reliable connections with local NGOs, community leaders, and government officials to obtain crucial on-the-ground information and support during crises.

  • Enhance the security of project sites and offices, particularly near high-risk areas like POGO operations or military installations, using technologies and conducting regular security audits.

  • Conduct regular training sessions and drills for staff on emergency response procedures, including evacuation plans, first aid, and communication protocols, ensuring everyone knows the emergency contacts and procedures specific to their area.

  • Stay informed about local political dynamics, regional tensions, and social unrest, adjusting operations and security measures based on these developments to ensure the safety of staff and the continuity of project operations.

  • Avoid non-essential travel to high-risk regions, restrict movement during periods of heightened tension, prioritize air travel over road travel when possible, and avoid traveling at night. Follow personnel security measures according to approved security plans.

  • Regularly coordinate with local law enforcement agencies to stay updated on security threats, receive support during emergencies, and establish clear communication channels for rapid response during any types of incidents.

  • Set up a robust system for staff to report security incidents or suspicious activities promptly and analyze these reports to adapt security measures accordingly. Staff must be trained on how to report a security incident or emergency or crisis situation.

  • Utilize secure transportation services for staff, especially when traveling to high-risk areas, ensuring vehicles are well-maintained and equipped with emergency supplies.

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