A new era of Philippine maritime security

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

In the past six years, the Philippines struggled to uphold its sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea (WPS) given the balancing, yet often failing, act that the Duterte administration performed in pursuit of its so-called independent foreign policy. This has resulted in numerous setbacks in strengthening our country’s defense posture and advancing strategic relations with like-minded states.

The proclamation of President-elect Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. last week, however, is seen by some quarters as a bright spot in terms of our foreign and national security agenda.

Addressing the long-standing concern over the WPS, Marcos Jr. said he would not “allow a single millimeter of our maritime coastal rights to be trampled upon.” Citing the 2016 arbitral ruling, he emphasized that the WPS is “already a territorial right” and not a claim.

These words are refreshing from someone coming after President Duterte. But will the next chief executive walk the talk? Does this optimism have sound basis?

To stay within course, the new administration must establish a forward-looking and strategic approach, taking into consideration existing gaps within the government and calibrating these against the backdrop of the uncertain future brought about by our external environment.

The new administration will take the reins of government at a critical time. It is expected to reassess and further develop the country’s comprehensive power according to its military, economic, scientific, and cultural capabilities.  Specifically, the archipelagic nature of the Philippines calls for more attention and prioritization of the maritime commons in building national security and development.

In the recently concluded virtual town hall discussion titled “The Future of Philippine Foreign Policy: On Maritime Security Capability and Strategy” hosted by our institute, subject matter experts and thought leaders highlighted the importance of synergizing the direction of foreign policy and its maritime defense and security posture while harnessing and enhancing economic development.

Failure to do so, they warned, may result in a weakened defense capability both externally and internally, decreased trust and confidence on the relations with key partners and allies in the region, and adverse impact on governance capability to drive toward national development.

Such was the case with the China pivot during the Duterte administration. The 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration was set aside, resulting in a lost opportunity to harness our international political capital in exchange for unrealized investments and increased Chinese presence within our territory.

A repeat of this policy under the Marcos administration will likely have detrimental effects given the current state of the economy.

There are two critical approaches to achieve the country’s full maritime capability. On the national level, a whole-of-government strategy is necessary to align agency-to-agency roles and mandates and identify areas for inter-agency cooperation. This includes implementing a clear, cohesive, and consistent foreign policy direction; formulating a new national security strategy based on the July 2016 arbitral ruling; establishing a roadmap for institutional and capability development for the country’s maritime defense agencies; and formulating policies and laws that enable these actions to come into fruition.

On the international level, the Philippines must harness the strengths of strategic partners in the region to its own advantage for further capacity-building measures, joint exercises, and diversified cooperation that would bring the Philippines closer to being a capable maritime nation.

While the Marcos Jr. presidency is still in the process of finalizing its composition and transitioning from its immediate predecessor, it should remember, at all times, that Filipinos’ interests and the nation’s economic recovery and development are the primary order of the day.

This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer Commentary.

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