The Philippines; island governance and balancing risks 20-Oct-2021

​South China Sea Series

The South China Sea has enormous economic and military strategic value.

It’s resource rich and sees approximately two thirds of the world’s shipping. It is to China what Mare Nostrum was to the Romans.

China is busy building on every crag and rock it can find, turning them into bases, runways, and ports.

China makes some extraordinary, far-reaching claims to almost the whole region.

The Philippines faces many of the same issues as Indonesia, the subject of the previous piece in this series. Some of its issues are worse. Its disputes with China are more immediate, it’s smaller and closer, and its traditional ally, the US, has lost focus.

The Philippines is not well understood in the west.

In the Jungle - about the Philippines

The Philippines is tropical with a mixed culture. Due to Spanish and US colonisation, it is the only Christian country in Asia.

It is similarly developed to other ASEAN countries. It has a lower-middle income economy with mostly good, stable diplomatic and economic relationships, and only some relatively minor disputes with Vietnam and Malaysia. Some estimates predict that the Philippines will become the 19th largest economy by 2050 (PwC Feb-2017), up from 33rd (IMF Apr-2021).

The Philippines’ relationship with Vietnam is notable. While they have some overlapping claims to the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (along with Malaysia, Taiwan, and China), they agreed a naval cooperation agreement (Inquirer 27-Oct-2011) to share information, keep open dialogue, and commit to finding a solution which follows the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

A lot of people on Mindanao have never felt completely part of the Philippines. It was never colonised and some people view the current government as successors to previous colonisers. Mindanao was the origin of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Conflict over the years has been brutal, and at the worst saw fighting house to house, throughout city areas. Philippines special forces had to go house to house to clear out the terrorists. When they moved out they’d often leave IEDs.

The Philippines is not an easy place to govern, Mindanao in particular, where a small minority is the source of some difficult problems, including piracy and Islamic terrorism (Reuters 09-Sep-2020).

This is a potential vulnerability which external adversaries could exploit.

The big fish - China

One of the theoretical reasons that China claims almost the whole of the South China Sea is that it says it’s an archipelagic state, like the Philippines or Indonesia.

This would make the water between the islands it claims its internal territory.

In practice, building bases on reefs and rocks means that China is physically claiming territory. It’s also very hard diplomatically for the Philippines, or the US, or anyone else to physically attack land which China claims as its territory versus an aircraft carrier at sea.

Now it doesn’t have to project its power from the mainland. It is effectively building permanent, unsinkable aircraft carriers.

Whether it’s diplomatic caution or lack of will entirely, the US has been minimally active in the last decade or so. The Scarborough Shoal standoff is a good example.

Both the Philippines and China claim the Scarborough Shoal. It’s about 200km from the Philippines’ mainland and 1000km from China.

In Apr-2012, the Philippines Navy detained Chinese fishing vessels and attempted to arrest their crews. Chinese Navy vessels prevented the attempt. This led to a series of cyber attacks and economic boycotts. The US arranged a deal which ended the standoff (NYT 18-Jun-2012) - or typhoon season was coming - but while the Philippines pulled back, China did not. This effectively militarised the Scarborough Shoal, and neither the Philippines nor the US pushed back.

Perhaps neither had the appetite for it. The risk for the US may have looked like it far outweighed the reward. The Philippines likely didn’t feel as if it could do anything without US backing.

The text of the US-Philippines mutual defence treaty which governs the defence relationship is vague. On a closer reading, the treaty is triggered only if military assets are attacked. The Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed in 2014, and finally approved in the Philippines in 2016, extends cooperation under the existing Visiting Forces Agreement but does not otherwise significantly deepen the alliance.

The Philippines and others in the South China Sea must have some serious questions about the reliability of the US as an ally.

It’s perhaps why President Duterte is looking elsewhere, like Russia, for defence relationships (CNN 04-Oct-2019) and why he arranged the Philippines’ own agreements with China over the Scarborough Shoal, almost denouncing the US (CNN 31-Oct-2016). Trying to reduce its risks of relying on one partner could be good for the Philippines.

If the US still believes in the China Containment Strategy (the recent “AUKUS” between the US, UK, and Australia indicates it might), it should seriously re-engage with the Philippines. Other than Taiwan it might be the best place to station a military presence. US favourability in the Philippines is not just positive, but high, while China is viewed negatively.

First, the US will have to make peace with the Philippines’ domestic politics, whichever way that unfolds.

Last time on… - recent political history

The Philippines has some difficult internal problems.

Duterte was elected on the promise of law and order. His tough image probably won him the presidency. Previous leaders had been all talk and people were getting tired of it. Crime was high and the government seemed weak. Stability was appealing.

Duterte had a track record. Importantly, he was the Mayor of Davao on the island of Mindanao. He was the first president to come from the south, had experience of urban government, and came with a different perspective.

Davao was a tough city in a tough part of the world, and it was inarguably transformed under Duterte’s time as mayor there. Davao became one of the more developed cities in the Philippines.

The west generally took issue with his harsh anti-drugs measures when Duterte became president. It’s open knowledge that he instructed what came to be known as “death squads” (Guardian 02-Apr-2017) to crush drug gangs. Amnesty International estimates that as many as 7,000 people were killed. 

This was part of Duterte’s appeal. He personally boasted of killing as many 8 people himself, without trial, or due process, or anything resembling western ideas of justice.

It brings a whole new meaning to shooting someone in Times Square and walking across the street to buy a hot dog. Was the Donald lifting from Aaron Sorkin?

The attitude tended to be that it was fine because he was killing bad guys, that the justice system was too slow, corrupt, and didn’t work. If it tackled the crime it looks like people were happy to just kill the criminals.

US-Philippines relations took a turn when Obama attacked Duterte on human rights issues. It’s understandable, but probably (and definitely with hindsight) it was a pointless move.

It pushed Duterte toward China and Russia, the US’s adversaries, and it allowed Duterte to attack the west on its own supposed principles of anti-colonialism. Duterte has been to China and Russia but never to Washington DC.

It’s fortunate for the US that its popular approval is still higher than China’s. Duterte was elected on domestic issues rather than foreign policy and the rest of the government is generally more pro-US. There’s still an opportunity for the US to repair relations with the Philippines but it should adjust its expectations. The US is in competition with China.

It might also depend on who wins the next presidential election. Although Duterte can’t run again (presidents serve one term for six years and there would certainly be heavy pushback if he tried to change the constitution) there are other ways that he can retain influence.

The field of candidates is interesting. Manny Pacquiao, the box world champion, and senator,  is running, and so is Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, the son of the former dictator and ex-senator himself, Leni Robredo, the current vice-president (elected separately to Duterte and a heavy critic), and Isko Moreno, the Mayor of Manila and former actor.

And so is Sara Duterte, the current Mayor of Davao, and daughter of the current president.

She missed a deadline for candidate filing (Nikkei Asia 08-Oct-2021), but could still run as a candidate substitute, which is what her father did.

She’s also leading in recent polls (Pulse Asia 29-Sep-2021) but seems reluctant to commit to running.

Duterte still has a lot of support. He could certainly play kingmaker and it could be in his interests to have a lot of informal power.

Whatever happens, it’s pointless to take purely aesthetic moralising positions which you can’t back up and only serve to strengthen your adversaries.

What’s next?

It’s probably in the Philippines interests to stick to its current foreign policy plans.

Cooperation with neighbours where there are common interests, trying to improve relations further afield, and trying to play to both China and the US.

But this only makes sense for as long as the US is disinterested. There’s no observably good reason for it to be disinterested.

​This elevated to a strategic partnership (Diplomat 10-Mar-2015). After China sank a Filipino fishing boat (NYT 13-Jun-2019), and the crew were rescued by Vietnam, the two countries started joint patrols (Hanoi Times 10-Sep-2019).

The Philippines’ international disputes over island territories are parallel to some of its own internal problems.

It can be hard for an archipelagic nation to control all of its islands. Every island in the Philippines has its own identity. Historically this made it hard to unite against the Spanish. Today this could make it harder to unite against any other external enemy, or for any external friend.

Mindanao, the largest island in the south, and approximately a quarter of the Philippines’ population, has 93% of the Philippines’ muslim population, which make up in turn about a quarter of the island’s population.