News Commentary

Recalibrating security strategies to achieve concrete outcomes

Alynna Carlos - Philstar.com
Recalibrating security strategies to achieve concrete outcomes
This handout photograph released by Philippine's Office of the Press Secretary and taken on January 4, 2023, shows Philippine's President Ferdinand Marcos Jr (2L) shaking hands with China's President Xi Jinping (2R) during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of People in Beijing.
Philippines's Office of the Press Secretary / AFP

The foreign policy and security strategy of a state reflect the security risks that it prioritizes. They highlight how that state intends to manage the region's geopolitical environment.

Over the years, there is a growing concern among states in the Indo-Pacific about threats in the maritime domain such as gray zone operations, territorial disputes, and environmental degradation. South Korea and Canada are the most recent additions to the list of countries that have released their Indo-Pacific strategy in response to these regional threats.

Given China’s increasing military and economic power, states have also continued to redefine their relations with it. For instance, South Korea's and the European Union's policies allow for cooperation with Beijing. Major states, on the other hand, see it as a threat to the existing international order.

In the case of the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak stated that the country's "golden era" of relations with China has ended, and that the country's strategy will evolve as China "consciously competes for global influence using all the levers of state power." Similarly, Canada acknowledges China's importance in the Indo-Pacific, but sees it as an "increasingly disruptive global power."

Similarly, the United States' 2022 National Defense Strategy and National Security Strategy sees China as a competitor with whom it intends to "compete responsibly." China is also described as an "unprecedented strategic challenge" in Japan's national security policy. This was echoed during a bilateral meeting between the US and Japan, where China was described as their "greatest shared strategic challenge." These statements and policies heighten strategic competition among Indo-Pacific states. 

In the Philippines, President Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. intends to strike a balance between the country's relations with the US and China, so current policies tend to steer clear of the ongoing strategic competition between the two major powers. The Marcos Jr. administration paid a state visit to Beijing and hosted the 10th Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue in Manila in January 2023 carrying the posture of having an independent foreign policy.

In these diplomatic engagements, a particular focus was given to how the issues in the West Philippine Sea are currently being handled. While there are concerns about how the Philippines will conduct its relations with China, Marcos Jr. clarified that the maritime issues are only a part of the overall engagements and should not define diplomatic relations. 

During the state visit to Beijing, Marcos Jr. and President Xi Jinping agreed that Filipino fishermen would not be prevented from conducting their livelihood in the West Philippine Sea. Additionally, they also agreed on establishing a communications mechanism for handling the issues in the disputed territory.

While this may facilitate communication lines and the speed up the filing of diplomatic protests against the incursions and massive infrastructure development in Philippine territory, the current policy direction seeks to resolve maritime issues. 

But what are diplomatic protests and communication lines against China’s massive infrastructure development in the West Philippine Sea?

Independent of international developments in foreign policy, the Philippines continues to pursue such friendly engagements, formulating policies that the president claims are based on national interests.

The status quo, however, has not been very effective, as the number of Chinese vessels within Philippine territory continues to increase. Officials in charge of security and defense must do more to ensure the protection of our sovereign rights in our exclusive economic zone.

The recent leadership changes in the country’s defense institutions - the Department of National Defense, the National Security Council, and the Armed Forces of the Philippines - offer an opportunity to recalibrate current security strategies. It is hoped that the new leaders will champion the country’s interests the West Philippine Sea and that it will remain a priority, as previously stated in the Department of National Defense’s 10-point agenda. 

To be more specific, responding to both internal and external security threats is critical to overall national security. Nonetheless, given the security risks in the West Philippine Sea, the Philippines is expected to take a more active stance in order to force a change in China's behavior and aggressive activities in the disputed area. If defense leaders share and recognize this strategic thinking, it will allow for more successful implementation of current policies and initiatives.

A crucial point to be made is that such policies must be effective in enforcing the Philippines’ arbitral victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2016. Clearly, the filing of diplomatic protests - which we have done numerous times - and agreements on communication lines that are already there in the first place, are not enough. Filipinos will witness more Chinese activities in its territory if the diplomatic course is left unchanged throughout this administration. 

While major powers see China as a strategic threat, the Philippines' independent foreign policy seeks to improve bilateral ties. However, the question of how to proceed beyond the current mechanisms that will actually reduce the presence of Chinese vessels harassing Filipino fishing vessels and Chinese infrastructure buildup remains. This friendly relationship with China must produce results that benefit Philippine interests.

As President Marcos Jr. continues making diplomatic visits among friends and allies The next one is a state visit to Japan in February where it is hoped that he will get more support for the protection of Philippines’ maritime territory. A visit to Australia is also in the horizon – Australia has investment initiatives amounting to P3.5 billion (US$ 61 million) in maritime programs across the Indo-Pacific. 

Maximizing the international community’s support, bilateral and multilateral mechanisms such as joint maritime patrols and military exercises in the West Philippine Sea can be explored. On the local level, the help of civil maritime agencies and local government units can also be tapped to implement an integrated approach in responding to the many security risks in Philippine waters. 

With the foreign policies in place and the ongoing diplomatic engagements, it is time to see more concrete and tangible outcomes in securing the West Philippine Sea after six years of the Philippines’ arbitral victory.  



Alynna Carlos is a program manager at the think tank Stratbase ADR Institute.

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