A Matter of Firm Resolve: The Philippine’s Strategic Posture in the South China Sea

A protest against the presence of Chinese vessels in South China Sea at the Chinese Embassy in Makati City, Philippines in 2019. Credit: REUTERS

Tensions in the South China Sea Series: A Five-Part Series (Part 5)


Highlighting the 2016 Arbitral Award in his United Nations General Assembly speech, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte emphasized its importance amidst the challenge posed by Chinese maritime militia in Philippine territorial waters. The first five months of 2021 has been a delicate period for Philippine-China bilateral relations with respect to the South China Sea issue. The Philippines has been filing protests almost daily since March 15, 2021 when 220 Chinese vessels started swarming around Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef. Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had demanded that China recall these vessels while dispatching a naval task force to patrol the area. Emphasizing Philippine’s diplomatic efforts to resolve this issue, Department of Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Elizabeth Buensuceso met Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian the following month to repeat the Philippine’s demand.

The Philippines has already filed around 100 diplomatic protests against China’s various incursions in the West Philippine Sea despite the Duterte administration’s vaunted “pivot to China” foreign policy. Ivy Banzon-Abalos, executive director of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ (DFA) office for strategic communications, stated that the country has filed 99 protest notes as of May 28, 2021. The DFA then filed the 100th diplomatic protest against the “incessant deployment, prolonged presence, and illegal activities” of Chinese vessels particularly off Pag-asa (Thitu) Island. The DFA asserted that the “Pag-asa Islands is an integral part of the Philippines over which it has sovereignty and jurisdiction.”

The Philippines has also stepped up its patrols in the South China Sea. From March 1 to May 25, 13 law enforcement or military vessels from the Philippines patrolled waters around the contested Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal at least 57 times.

The Philippines has also received international support in this issue. The US State Department released a statement that the “US stands by its ally, the Philippines.” Similarly, Canada, Japan and Australia also affirmed their support for the Philippines during this stand-off.

Notwithstanding the international support, this article primarily focuses on Philippine’s reactions to China vis-à-vis in the South China Sea and a short-term outlook for the Philippines and its regional neighbours.

Strengthening Posture via New Naval Bases and an Amphibious Military Force

Philippine’s strategic posture is guided by its National Marine Policy. This entails maintaining a proactive maritime administration ensuring effective implementation and enforcement of all laws, regulations and recommendations. Through this policy and in addition to diplomatic measures, two bills are pertinent to Philippine’s response to the South China Sea issue. The first is the introduction of House Bill No. 9420, the Philippine Navy Forward Operating Bases Act, authored by Representative Johnny Pimentel. This Bill proposes 12 new naval bases; four naval bases positioned in Luzon’s western seaboard and three in the eastern coast to guard the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Rise. These naval outposts will serve as future staging and resupply sites for the Navy’s warships and battle craft to address future incursions.

The second Bill facilitates the reinforcement of Philippine’s maritime security efforts via the presence of an amphibious force. Senate Bill 1731, authored by Senator Sonny Angara, provides the Philippine Marine Corps (PMC) with its own charter. Consequently, the PMC will become the fourth service branch of the country’s armed forces that is equal and mutually independent as the three existing branches of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP): the Philippine Army, the Philippine Air Force and the Philippine Navy (PN). The presence of the PMC is vital considering the country’s archipelagic makeup which requires a comprehensive yet rapidly deployable amphibious military force that is primarily mandated to conduct seaborne and on-shore tactical operations to protect the country’s territories, communities, and inhabitant. This is evident in the PMC’s capabilities to provide ground combat, combat support, combat service support, aviation component, and other units necessary for the pursuit of its mandate.

To increase capability in countering and interdicting the potential coastal threats in territorial waters, the PMC recently adopted the Archipelagic Coastal Defense (ACD) Concept. This ACD adopts a strategy of anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) for its joint operations with other units. The ACD underscores that the composition of coastal defense is not limited to missiles, rockets, and guns, but is also defined by having capable and ready maneuver forces, support systems, maritime forces, and sustainment capabilities. The concept emphasizes the simultaneous development and integration of these capabilities that will determine the strategic and operational success of the ACD Concept. The creation of a Coastal Defense Regiment (CDR), a unit that is designed to protect the country’s shores, ships, and amphibious task forces against an invading enemy and to improve support of naval operations, will be developed within the PMC. The PMC will also procure shore-based anti-ship missile system (SBASMS), shore-based air defense system (SBADS), Man Portable Air Defense System (MANPADS), Multi-launched Rocket System (MLRS), and the deployment of howitzers.

Further Strengthening of Naval Assets: Fleet, Bases and Equipment

To strengthen maritime security, the PN developed the Strategic Sail 2020 Plan which states that the PN will “adopt a dynamic and responsive naval organization.” This entails the PN fleet being classified into six categories: Ready Force, Patrol Force, Service Force, Assault Craft Force, Naval Air Group, and Naval Special Warfare Group. These categories empower the PN in being dynamic and responsive by ensuring a continuous and cost-effective capability that facilitates the overall mission planning. Moreover, the fleet plan also builds upon the specialization of each force and it enhance their respective competencies in each operational run. The PN continuously upgrades the seven regional force commands based throughout the Philippines. This includes acquiring more ships and submarines, and developing new naval stations. It also means establishing advanced radar facilities for better monitoring.

As a way to enhance coastal defense capabilities in the South China Sea, the Philippines has implemented a full-scale modernization of the Navy. The PN has commissioned two guided-missile frigates for better technical capabilities and stronger firepower in order to deter incursions of foreign vessels in the South China Sea. Philippine Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana said that the completion of the frigate acquisition project “marks the advent of our future fleet towards having a modernized and multi-capable Philippine Navy.” Moving forward, the PN procurement plan from 2022 to 2025, centers on the acquisition of four more frigates, 12 corvettes, 18 offshore patrol vessels, 40 fast-attack interdiction craft and 42 smaller multipurpose attack craft.

In a bid to further increase intelligence gathering in the South China Sea, the Philippines plans to acquire French submarines in the near future. Moreover, in order to be able to improve the country’s coastal defense capabilities, the PN is building a naval station in Palawan and upgrading the Subic Bay Naval Base. Furthermore, as a way to enhance interoperability in joint military exercises with other Asian navies in the South China Sea, the PN participates in the annual holding of Staff-Staff talks with the Vietnamese Navy. The sixth iteration of Staff-to-Staff Talks (STST), regarded also as one of the confidence building measures, was held between the Philippine Navy and the Vietnam People’s Navy (VPN) at VPN headquarters in Hai Phong city on November 26, 2019. In a bid to facilitate the identification and detection of hostile targets, better radar systems were installed. Additionally, the PN expanded the National Coast Watch Center (NCWC) by installing various radar outposts around the base to allow the military to monitor events in the South China Sea in real time. The NCWC is also better equipped with the deployment of local radar systems such as the Synthetic Aperture Radar and Automatic Identification System for Innovative Terrestrial Monitoring and Maritime Surveillance (SAR with AIS) Project. The SAR with AIS Project focuses on terrestrial monitoring and maritime surveillance on high priority areas through simultaneous radar image and automatic identification system (AIS) data acquisition through the NovaSAR-1 satellite developed by Surrey Satellite Technology, Ltd. More importantly, with better monitoring, the NCWC can better unite the efforts of the PN with the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine National Police Maritime Group.

Balikatan 2021 Exercise: Show of Strength, Strengthening Ties with US

As part of its bilateral engagements, the AFP and US Military conducted the 36th Balikatan Exercise from April 12-23, 2021. This was a large-scale exercise with 736 AFP and 225 US Army personnel. The Balikatan Exercise not only demonstrated both countries’ shared commitment to peace and stability and the adaptability of US and Philippine forces, but also a step towards seeking new ways to strengthen security cooperation between two traditional allies.

Philippine Support for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific

While building its military capabilities, the Philippine Government also fully supports a free and open Indo-Pacific. In his speech at the Nikkei Forum, President Rodrigo Duterte called for countries in Asia to act responsibly and within a system of norms, commitments and obligations. This includes the peaceful resolution of disputes in line with international law.

In a recent development, the Philippines has retained the Visiting Forces Agreement(VFA) via President Duterte’s retraction of the VFA termination letter sent in 2020. Through the VFA, the US government will continue to render humanitarian and military assistance to the Philippines through regular deployment of US military personnel. This agreement also allows US aircrafts and vessels to enter the Philippines based on implementing agreements. Their presence can further aid freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

The Philippines remains a staunch ally of the US in the Indo-Pacific. It supports the Freedom of Navigation operations which is regularly conducted by the US. The Philippines and Japan affirmed their commitment to upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea at the first meeting of Japanese defense minister Nobuo Kishi and Secretary Delfin Lorenzana last October 23, 2020. They issued a joint statement “calling on concerned parties to desist from any action and activity that contravenes the Asean-China Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea as these generate tension, mistrust and uncertainty, and threatens regional peace and stability.”

Bleak Short-Term Outlook for ASEAN and South China Sea

Like the developments in Myanmar, the policy of non-interference will prevail among ASEAN countries on issues affecting the South China Sea. Brunei, the current ASEAN Chairman, continues to adopt this policy. Unfortunately, ASEAN, as a collective body, has been incapacitated by this principle of “non-interference.” This is evident from the silence and inaction of ASEAN and China on Myanmar which has encouraged the Myanmar military to terrorize its own people.

The bleak short-term outlook for the ASEAN and South China Sea is characterized by the “principle of non-interference” and the Chinese insistence on bilateral discussions with ASEAN members on the South China Sea. Additionally, each member country has developed their own preferred way of dealing with China, particularly on specific issues that are of great importance to them. However, their ways generally centre on the crucial aspect of not antagonizing China.

Strong Philippine-China bilateral relations persist despite the tension caused by Chinese maritime militia at the Whitsun Reef. During the pandemic, China has donated 1 million Sinovac-made Coronavac to the Philippines and made available an additional 1 million doses. Chinese investments in the “Build, Build, Build” program of the Duterte Administration remain committed.

Another bleak development is that the South China Sea has largely been overtaken by the Covid-19 crisis and the need for a coordinated regional response to the pandemic. Correspondingly, all negotiations on the South China Sea are put on hold in deference to the Covid-19 Delta variant that is afflicting the citizens of the ASEAN. The primordial focus of the ASEAN-China Forum is on Covid19 regional cooperation. The Mission of China to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia (FPCI), supported by the Permanent Mission of the Philippines as country coordinator for ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, organized the Jakarta Virtual Forum on 29 May 2020 which brought together experts to discuss areas where regional cooperation on COVID-19 need to be strengthened.

In its conduct of foreign policy, the Philippines remains committed to peaceful means as set out in the 1982 Manila Declaration on Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes. The Preamble of the Manila Declaration highlights the obligation of all States to settle their international disputes by peaceful means. Unfortunately, China is never keen on using international platforms to discuss South China Sea issues. But China’s successive diplomatic notes to the Philippines has emphasized the paramount importance of bilateral meetings with respect to all negotiations on the South China Sea.  It is expected that future discussions on claims on the South China Sea will remain within the ambit of bilateral relations between China and any one of the ASEAN states.

Part 1: South China Sea: The Need for Strong and Persistent Policies

Part 2: Indonesia and Maritime Rules-Based Order in the South China Sea

Part 3: Changing Realities for Malaysia in the South China Sea Dispute

Part 4: Malaysia’s Diplomacy in the South China Sea: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Professor Amparo Pamela Fabe is a Professor of Financial Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime at the National Police College, Philippines. She is a specialist in Countering Violent Extremism.

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