Reluctant pursuit: The Duterte administration’s defense policy

September 1, 2016

Renato de Castro, Stratbase-ADRi Trustee

Image Source: The Philippine Star

In 2010, President Benigno Aquino III declared his unequivocal support for the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Yet despite being determined to boost the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities, the Aquino administration had financial constraints.

And so while Aquino recognized the urgency of modernizing the military, especially the Navy and Air Force, he understood the limitations brought about by competing demands, especially funds for education and public infrastructure.

From his perspective, modernization’s goal was to build up a credible defense posture, not to project power long distances or fight wars. Aquino wanted the military to reach the minimum level necessary to defend the country’s territory and interests. Thus, despite its modest goals, the Aquino administration sank its teeth into challenging China’s encroachment into the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

By the end of Aquino’s term, the government had acquired two second-hand U.S. Coast Guard cutters (BRP Gregorio Del Pilar and BRP Alcaraz) and signed a contract for 12 FA-50 multi-purpose fighter planes from South Korea. Though the Navy acquired six Multi-Purpose Attack Crafts (MPACs), the Department of National Defense (DND) postponed the purchase of missile-armed MPACs until after the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) had releases the funds.

Because of a funding shortfall from Congress, the DND could not procure blue-water missile-armed ships, search-and-rescue vessels, naval helicopters, strategic sealift ships, and top-of-the-line interceptors to protect the country’s territorial claims and exclusive economic zone.

Is defense policy turning inward?

During the campaign leading up to the 2016 elections, then Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte was highly critical of the Aquino administration’s handling of the West Philippine Sea disputes. For his part, he declared his willingness to having bilateral talks with China and the possibility of joint exploration of the disputed waters’ natural resources.

Duterte even brought up China building railroads in Mindanao. On the other hand, he disparaged the Philippines-US alliance and said he had little confidence that the United States would honor its treaty commitment to the Philippines.

Before his inauguration, Duterte said he wouldn’t continue the military modernization program started by his predecessor, or at least not with the same vigor. Observers thought that Duterte would follow former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s national security policy of gravitating toward China and downplaying territorial defense to focus on neutralizing domestic security challenges, such terrorism and insurgencies.

“Duterte said he wouldn’t continue the military modernization program started by his predecessor, or at least not with the same vigor.”

If he links the military’s modernization to Aquino’s agenda of challenging China’s expansive claim, Duterte’s agenda to improve bilateral relations with China may mean decrease in public investments on territorial defense, if not outright termination.

For instance, on the eve of his inauguration, Duterte announced that he would not continue the modernization program, calling the fighter planes (two FA-50s) decorative.

“Fighter jets are good only for ceremonial flybys,” Duterte said. “I am not in favor of building up external defense. I will not go to war with China.”

Military and defense department officials immediately clarified Duterte’s statement. AFP Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Ricardo Visaya said that AFP modernization would continue, although internal security threats, such as the Abu Sayyaf group, will be prioritized, including equipment such as helicopters with night-fighting capabilities and fast craft.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has assured the AFP and the Filipino public that the current administration would pursue the modernization of the Philippine military. Lorenzana emphasized that territorial defense is one of the priorities of the Duterte government, saying, “It is very important as we need to protect our territories against encroachment by other parties.” He then added that the 15-year AFP modernization program would continue as scheduled.

“Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has assured the AFP and the Filipino public that the current administration would pursue the modernization of the Philippine military.”

As with Visaya, however, Lorenzana clarified that there will be some “redirection” as the Duterte administration is determined to deal decisively with criminality, especially the Abu Sayyaf.

No clear defense agenda yet

The confusing statements of the Duterte administration on AFP modernization indicate that it still does not have a clear defense agenda.

Some analysts expected that Duterte would adopt a pragmatic foreign policy agenda for the Philippines, characterized by keeping the country’s security relations with the United States intact while exploring greater economic cooperation with China. Some government officials, however, observed that Duterte, just like other presidential candidates, simply did not have any concrete foreign policy or defense agenda coming into his post. Unfortunately, important foreign policy and defense decisions were some of the first for the president to make.

Some government officials observed that Duterte, just like other presidential candidates, simply did not have any concrete foreign policy or defense agenda coming into his post.

After a three-year wait, the arbitral tribunal rendered its ruling on the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China on 12 July. The five-judge tribunal unanimously ruled in favor of the Philippines on almost all of the claims it made against China.

The tribunal rendered China’s nine-dash line in the South China Sea as contrary to international law. It further determined that none of the Spratlys are legally islands because they cannot sustain a stable human community or independent economic life.

Finally, it found China guilty of damaging the marine environment by building artificial islands and illegally preventing the Philippines from full and sole control of its exclusive economic zone. The tribunal’s decision is final and binding.

Sober response seeks to avoid retaliation

Despite its overwhelming legal victory in the most anticipated decision of any international tribunal on the law of the sea, the Duterte administration met the decision with a cautious and even muted reaction. The president fulfilled his earlier promise that he would not flaunt the decision or taunt China with a favorable ruling.

Although the domestic reaction was overwhelmingly positive, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay merely said that he welcomed the ruling and called on the Filipinos to exercise restraint and sobriety.

During the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Laos, Yasay withdrew the country’s motion to include the ruling in the ASEAN Joint Communiqué after Cambodia objected to its inclusion.

Assigned to be the country’s special envoy to China, former President Fidel Ramos even suggested that the president should set the award aside as this administration pursues bilateral negotiations with China.

The government’s cautious reaction is the result of this government’s concern that flaunting a legal victory might force China to react adversely against Filipino fishermen and AFP units stationed in the South China Sea.

Because the arbitral tribunal has no enforcement mechanism, it is difficult to imagine China carrying out its activities in accordance with the ruling. Even so, despite the administration’s calm response, the ruling triggered tensions with China and the government cannot easily implement the ruling because of the relative weakness of our Navy and the Coast Guard.

“Because the arbitral tribunal has no enforcement mechanism, it is difficult to imagine China carrying out its activities in accordance with the ruling.”

Reluctant continuation of previous priorities

To enforce the law, the Philippine government will need a more modern Navy and Coast Guard. Thus, the ruling has put pressure on the Duterte administration to develop these forces, which could then send vessels to escort Filipino fishermen and survey ships.

In certain cases, the Navy will need to deploy its ships to show the flag and join allied navies in conducting free of navigation operations in the disputed waters.

In the aftermath of the award, Lorenzana again highlighted the urgent need for the Philippines to upgrade its armed forces.

Lorenzana underscored that the “15-year modernization program of the AFP will continue as scheduled.” He added that the DND would continue with the AFP modernization program, which jives with the administration’s plan to developing a credible deterrent force to secure Philippine territory.

These developments indicate that despite its pronouncements about reviving bilateral negotiations, pursuing joint developments, and shifting from territorial defense to internal security, the Duterte administration might end up reluctantly continuing its predecessor’s defense agenda out of necessity.

In addition to developing the military for territorial defense purposes, it may yet find itself bolstering closer Philippine-U.S. security relations, seeking from Washington an explicit security guarantee under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and promoting a strategic partnership with other regional players like Japan.

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