The Philippine Foreign and Security Policy Perspective

Yusuke Takagi
Associate Professor, National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies


In discussing the Philippine foreign and security policy perspective, it is necessary to consider both the summit diplomacy undertaken by the president and the foreign and security policy promoted by the policy coalition made up of key stakeholders from the political and business circles. 1 In terms of the Philippines' summit diplomacy, we may conclude that the Benigno Aquino administration approached the United States, adopting a confrontational position toward China; the Rodrigo Duterte administration is, by contrast, approaching China, weakening its relations with the United States (Ito 2020). Meanwhile, the most prominent move led by the policy coalition is the development of the country's maritime domain awareness capabilities, for which the United States has provided the Duterte administration with continued technical assistance. As for the Sino-Filipino confrontation over the South China Sea issue, President Duterte, at the time of his taking office, avoided flaunting the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling in favor of the Philippines. Afterward, however, he insisted at the UN General Assembly in 2020 to resolve the pending issue based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and on the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling. President Duterte does not negate all the legacy from the previous administration. In other words, there are some policy goals that the policy coalition pursues to a certain extent irrespective of a change in administration.

This paper aims to highlight the characteristics of the Philippine foreign and security policy perspective by focusing on legislation and capacity building promoted under the leadership of the policy coalition, rather than on the summit diplomacy that tends to change with administrative change. 2 The reason for focusing on the policy collation instead of on specific ministries and agencies lies in the significance of the policy coalition as a network of stakeholders, who are in a state of constant flux for the following three reasons. First, appointments based on the so-called "revolving door" rule peculiar to the presidential system entails, at the time of each change in administration, massive personnel movement involving business, academia, and think tanks. Second, since political parties in the Philippines are not well organized and fluctuate a great deal before and after elections, they are incapable of gathering talented human resources. As a result, information on or from Filipino political parties is not sufficient to understand the Philippines' security policy direction sustainable over the medium to long term. Third, there are individuals in so-called civil society organizations (CSOs) who are active policy advocates --- a feature that has been particularly noticeable since the country's democratization. The policy coalition represents a network joined by people who do not necessarily belong to a single institution to realize a particular policy. In the following, I will summarize the characteristics of the Philippine foreign and security policy perspective, going back to the period of the Fidel Ramos administration that lasted from 1992 to 1998. The Ramos administration was the first to squarely address diplomatic and security issues whose legacies continue to linger until this day: a review of the country's security policy after the withdrawal of US military bases, a conflict with China over Mischief Reef in 1995, and confrontation with anti-government armed groups in the southern Philippines. The Ramos administration is credited with laying the foundation of Philippine diplomacy for the years that followed. However, the Chinese offensive, which became particularly pronounced in the 2010s, is demanding the revision of Philippine diplomacy. Focusing on the two policy issues of promoting the rule of law at sea and developing defense capabilities, Sections 2 and 3 of this paper will discuss the characteristics of the Philippines' new foreign and security policy that have become apparent through confrontation with China.

1. Establishment of a Comprehensive Security Perspective

Philippine foreign policy is characterized by three pillars instituted under the Fidel Ramos administration. They are (1) national security, (2) economic security, and (3) the protection of the rights of overseas Filipinos. 3 The Ramos administration came into office when the withdrawal of US military bases in the Philippines was about to take place. It reformulated its security policy and reviewed the long-standing de facto division of assignments between US Forces in the Philippines responsible for external defense and the Philippine military for domestic security. The administration worked out a bill to modernize the armed forces of the Philippines (AFP), with a particular focus on strengthening the navy and air force. Nonetheless, it is said that President Ramos himself did not strongly support the AFP Modernization Act until the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. 4

The Ramos administration took a strong interest in economic development rather than military and security issues; it formulated a policy document named "Philippines 2000" and undertook a major structural reform of the Philippine economy. Jose Almonte, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, played a primary role in preparing "Philippines 2000." He, like Ramos, was a military officer and an expert on economic affairs. According to Almonte's recollections, the Ramos administration shifted the concept of security from a narrow militaristic one to that of "comprehensive security." Besides liberalization efforts, it attempted to attract foreign direct investment and to promote exports, while establishing the Philippine Economic Zone Authority (PEZA). It is apparent that the Ramos administration viewed economic security within the framework of comprehensive security and prioritized the Philippines' economic growth. 5

The Ramos administration's opening-up policy has been taken over by succeeding administrations, and in the 2000s, the Philippines' economic relations were characterized by a pronounced tendency of diversification. A comparison of trade figures between 2000 and 2020 shows that in 2000, more than 50% of Philippine exports headed for the advanced economies of North America, Europe, and Japan --- 31.5%, 18.4%, and 14.4%, respectively. Likewise, nearly 50% of Philippine imports came from North America, Europe, and Japan (19.3%, 10.8%, and 18.9%, respectively). In 2020, the share of advanced economies in the Philippine trade dropped. North America, Europe, and Japan accounted for 16.7%, 11.7%, and 15.5% of Philippine exports; 8.4%, 8.9%, and 9.5% of Philippine imports. 6

China, Singapore, and ASEAN (excluding Singapore) have significantly increased their share in Philippine trade over the past 20 years. In 2000, their share in Philippine exports accounted for 1.7%, 8.2%, and 7.5%, respectively, while their share in Philippine imports accounted for 2.3%, 6.7%, and 8.8%. In 2020, these figures rose. Their share in Philippine exports occupied 15%, 5.9%, and 10%, respectively, while their share in Philippine imports occupied 23.2%, 6.2%, and 20.2 % each. The rise of ASEAN's share in Philippine imports is particularly remarkable.

It is, however, noteworthy that such a change in those countries' share does not mean a "replacement" in the Philippines' major trading partners. Consider, for example, the Philippines' total trade value in 2000 worth $72,569.12 million. It almost doubled to $149,566.8 million in 2020. On closer inspection, the Philippines' total trade value with North America, Europe, and Japan in 2000 was $18,652.26 million, $10,770.04 million, and $12,117.01 million, respectively. In 2020 they changed to $17,880.22 million, $15,076.82 million and $18,077.97 million, each. This shows that the Philippine trade with Europe and Japan has been at least expanding. The participation of emerging countries in Philippine trade should not be understood as the replacement of the Philippines' major existing trading partners by any other particular countries but rather as a new addition to the existing trade partnership. In other words, the scope of the Philippines' economic diplomacy has widened.

The third of the three pillars of Philippine diplomacy, the protection of the rights of overseas Filipinos, has implications beyond a mere emphasis on consular services abroad. As of 2019, 2.2 million Filipinos lived outside the country, and their homeward remittances amounted to $30,133.3 million in total or roughly 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product at that time. The significance of OFWs remittances may be obvious when one considers that foreign direct investment inflows to the Philippines in 2019 were $7,685 million. In the 2000s, when the Asian currency crisis crippled export-oriented manufacturing industries in the country, the Philippine government shifted its focus to promoting service industries and exporting labor overseas. In 2006, OFWs homeward remittances exceeded the total amount of foreign direct investment inflows and official development assistance. 7

Incidentally, OFWs' countries of residence are not necessarily the same as those from where they remit money home. This fact makes it hard for Philippine diplomacy to narrow down vital target regions. By region, the Middle East has the largest population of OFWs, whereas, in terms of the area from where OFWs remit money home, North America has the highest number of Filipino remitters. The reason for the large remittance flows from North America is the presence of the Filipino-American population of as many as over 4 million. Compared to neighboring Southeast Asian countries, foreign direct investment inflows to the Philippines are not large, but trade and OFWs' remittances continue growing. 8

In sum, during the Ramos administration era, the Philippines established a comprehensive security perspective that was to be taken over by subsequent administrations, laying the foundation for the diversification of countries that are primary targets of the Philippines' economic diplomacy. 9 The succeeding administrations of Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo adopted an engagement policy for the basis of their China policy. It was not until the latter half of the 2000s, when the confrontation between the Philippines and China turned tense, that the Philippines' emphasis on engagement policy toward China gradually altered.

2. Promotion of the Rule of Law at Sea

The failure to formulate a joint statement at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' meeting in 2012 marked a turning point in the Philippine government's foreign policy. The Philippine government and the policy coalition (highlighted in this essay) made a shift in its foreign policy from an emphasis on ASEAN in its China diplomacy to the strengthening of the alliance with the United States, the promotion of the rule of law at sea, and the improvement of its defense capabilities relying on cooperation with South Korea, Australia, and Japan. Since the inauguration of the Duterte administration, however, there has been no headway in the strengthening of the alliance with the United States. On the other hand, the other two policy measures --- the promotion of the rule of law at sea and the strengthening of defense capabilities --- have been gradually but consistently pursued under the Aquino and the Duterte administrations.

The Aquino administration was not the first Philippine administration that emphasized the rule of law at sea. Earlier in 2009, toward the end of the Arroyo administration, the Philippine government achieved two vital legal reforms. The first was the enactment of the Archipelago Baseline Act to define archipelago baselines from which to measure the continental shelf. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) took the lead in drafting the bill. Legal experts who had been consistently involved in the institutionalization of such laws played a role when the Philippine government filed a suit against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013. 10

The other legal legacy of the Arroyo administration is Republic Act No. 9993. This law positioned the Philippine Coast Guard, which had for many years been a naval department, as an independent law enforcement agency. It enabled the PCG to promote international cooperation, through which, for example, Japan provided patrol vessels to the PCG. According to active PCG officer J. Tarriela, the Aquino administration utilized the PCG to assert that the Philippines took a non-military approach in its confrontation with China. The Duterte administration is using the PCG to avoid conflict with China. Under both administrations, the PCG has come to be better equipped than before. Even under President Duterte, who repeats criticism of the United States, the PCG has participated in SEACARAT and other US-led multilateral drills. The PCG, says Tarriela, is evolving "coast guard diplomacy" with coast guard organizations of different countries. 11

3. Modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Attempts at Capacity-Building Cooperation

To improve Philippine defense capabilities, the Aquino administration updated the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Act the Ramos administration enacted. It had become a dead law due to budget shortage. The Aquino administration aimed at modernizing the AFP through the strengthening of air and naval forces.

What is important in association with the Philippines' self-defense policy is that the country is looking forward to capacity-building cooperation from the United States, allies, and friendly countries. In 2012, the Aquino administration established the National Coast Watch System (NCWS) to enhance maritime surveillance capabilities. The Coast Watch South, the precursor of the NCWS, had been created primarily by the Philippine navy as part of efforts to address terrorism in the southern Philippines. The US military conducted "Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines" in the south of the Philippines from 2002 to 2014, with an annual average of 500 to 600 US soldiers stationed in the country. In 2005, the US military moved the Operation headquarters from the US Embassy in Manila to the Zamboanga Peninsula in western Mindanao, thereby supporting the AFP in capacity building in its main battlefield. 12 During this period, the Coast Watch South was reorganized into the NCWS with the PCG serving as its main force. US support for the NCWS continued into the Duterte administration era when US-Philippine relations became increasingly difficult.

Under the Duterte administration, however, no signs are visible of anything like the strengthening of defense cooperation with the United States; rather, the administration has strengthened relations with US allies. For example, the Philippine Air Force had possessed no supersonic aircraft for nearly a decade since 2005. The Aquino administration purchased ROK-made fighter jets, which the Philippine Air Force dispatched in response to the intrusion of Chinese ships into the Philippine EEZ in the South China Sea in 2021. 13 Meanwhile, the Philippine government advanced defense cooperation with Australia. In September 2012, the two countries reviewed the 1995 Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperative Defense Activities and signed the Philippines-Australia Status of Visiting Forces Agreement. The agreement provided a legal basis for Australia's reconstruction assistance in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 and joint military drills in the Philippines. Strategic dialogue between the two navies that the Australian government emphasized took place in March 2017 under the Duterte administration. Although President Duterte has not yet paid a visit to Australia, he went on board an Australian warship that made a port call during the 2017 strategic dialogue, giving the impression of progress in bilateral defense cooperation. 14

Security cooperation between Japan and the Philippines is also progressing. Prime Minister Abe's speech at the 2014 Shangri-La Dialogue stressed the rule of law at sea. Although it did not mention China by name, it focused on China's behavior in the South China Sea, which resonated with the position of the Aquino administration. Since then, security cooperation between the two countries has advanced: the provision of patrol vessels to the Philippine maritime law enforcement agency and the dispatch of experts, as well as the transfer and export of defense equipment. As part of Japan's reconstruction assistance following the mega Typhoon Haiyan in 2012, a JMSDF vessel visited Leyte --- once a WWII battleground --- to engage in reconstruction support. JSDF's participation in the Haiyan disaster relief operation testified to its expanding role in overseas disaster relief activities. 15


The Philippine government formulates its foreign and security policy based on its comprehensive security perspective. The significance of economic development is also self-evident from the same perspective. It is indisputable that President Duterte's approach to China may be explained by his economic motives. However, the president's approach to China does not represent the whole of the Philippines' foreign and security policy. Amid confrontation with China in the South China Sea, the Philippine government has been seeking to strengthen its alliance with the United States, emphasizing the rule of law at sea, and strengthening its defense capabilities. Yet, as seen in the disturbances following the inauguration of the Duterte administration, the strengthening of the alliance with the United States has been affected by domestic politics.

As for the promotion of the rule of law at sea and the strengthening of the country's defense capabilities, Philippine administrations from Arroyo and Aquino to Duterte have pursued them with a certain continuity. However, in addressing either of those challenges, the Philippine government, due to budgetary and capacity constraints, presupposes the availability of capacity-building cooperation from the United States, Australia, South Korea, and Japan. In this connection, the maintenance of military equipment purchased or provided will be a future task for the Philippine government to address. Coordination of the overall security policy to integrate specific projects of cooperation as a whole is also a future issue to consider.

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