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News Commentary

Will Marcos modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines?

Renato Cruz De Castro - Philstar.com
Will Marcos modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines?
Philippine president-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (C) waves to supporters as he arrives for his proclamation as the country's president at the House of Representatives in Quezon City, suburban Manila on May 25, 2022.
AFP/Ted Aljibe

During the 2022 election period, the South China Sea dispute became an issue in the face of China’s continuous militarization of the land features controlled in the disputed waters. The Chinese coast guard and maritime militia also harassed Filipino fishermen in the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The situation highlighted the necessity of modernizing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and strengthening the country’s external defense capabilities.

Last week, the leading Philippine think tank, Stratbase ADR Institute, launched the book “Beyond the Crisis: A Strategic Agenda for the Next President,” which exposes the country’s growing regional and international challenges.

I am honored that my research on having a comprehensive Philippine security strategy is part of the 16 policy papers that provide an authentic collection of strategic recommendations for the next administration. The book covers issues that span foreign policy and security, economy, social inequality, food security, climate change, and governance.

My paper contends that the next president should immediately formulate a new National Security Strategy based on the 2016 arbitral ruling to make our defense posture adept to the changing geopolitical environment. 

More specifically, the importance of modernizing the AFP and the strengthening of existing and new alliances and partnerships with multilateral organizations committed to a rules-based international system must be prioritized.

Prof. Dindo Manhit, president of the Institute, stated during the launch: “In the face of various security challenges, the incoming administration should work towards formulating a responsive and strategic foreign policy that allows the country to pursue its strategic interests and positively contribute to regional affairs.”

Duterte and the AFP modernization program

Prior to the presidential inauguration on June 30, 2016, defense analysts and observers assumed that President Rodrigo Duterte would simply follow former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s national security policy of gravitating toward China while ignoring territorial defense and concentrating on neutralizing domestic security challenges such as terrorism and insurgencies.

However, a few days after Duterte was sworn in, his administration changed its tune on the AFP’s modernization. He declared that, “there will even be no refocusing of the modernization thrust. We will only adjust our priorities (to internal defence).” This policy statement was reflected in the 15% rise in the 2017 defense spending with the increased allocation for the modernization program from P15 billion (US$333million) to P25 billion (US$555million).

Duterte continued the previous administration’s efforts to develop a credible defense posture. 

In June 2019, Duterte agreed to bankroll the second phase of the AFP’s 15-year modernization program. The first phase of the program, which began in 2013 and ended in 2017, entailed the acquisition of military equipment mainly for internal defense. 

The second phase or horizon, from 2018 to 2022, is an ambitious and expensive transition period where the Philippine military would concentrate on arms purchases for territorial defense. This phase provides big-ticket items that the AFP would acquire, with the lion’s share of the US$56 billion modernization fund going to the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Air Force. 

It is estimated that the Philippine government would spend a total of P519.89 billion (estimated at US$10.38 billion) from 2018 to 2022 to purchase these “game-changing” arms acquisition projects that will develop the AFP’s territorial defense capabilities.

Will Marcos continue the AFP modernization program? 

During a televised debate on Feb. 19, 2022, presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr. modified his accommodationist stance on China when asked how he views the great powers carving out spheres of influence in the 21st century. 

He replied that although he recognized that the country is in a hot spot in geopolitics, he will not cede any one square inch to any country, particularly China, but will continue to engage and work on our national interests. 

When asked what he will do with the continuous harassment of Filipino fishing vessels by other claimant states in the disputed waters, Marcos stated that “the next leader must give priority to ensuring that Filipino fishermen go back to their traditional (fishing grounds).”

Marcos added that it should not be hard to point out to the Chinese that Filipino fishing boats are not a military threat to them. So, why should China deploy warships in the disputed waters? 

He then declared that if Chinese ships harass Filipino fishermen again, he would send the coast guard or even the navy, so that there will be a (Philippine) military presence in the South China Sea. 

Pressed further, he explained that he wants a military presence to show to China that the Philippines is defending what it considers its territorial waters, but its ships should not fire upon Chinese vessels operating in the disputed area. 

Whether or not the incoming president will continue his predecessor’s efforts to modernize the AFP remains to be seen. If is he is dead serious in protecting Filipino fisherman and showing China that he is ready to defend Philippine territorial rights and maritime claims, then he will be honoring his duty to our country. 

 

Dr. Renato De Castro is a trustee and convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.

FERDINAND MARCOS JR.

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