Victory and Defeat: The Philippines and the South China Sea

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s (left) courtesy call at Manila in January 2021. Credit: AFP/Richard Madelo.


On the campaign trail during the Philippines’ 2016 election cycle, President Rodrigo Duterte declared in a press conference, “I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest point in [the] South China Sea that is tolerable to them and I will ride a jet ski. I will carry a flag and when I reach [the] Spratlys, I will erect the Filipino flag. I will tell [China], suntukan o barilan (fistfight or gunfight)?”

Running on a platform of ridding the country of drugs and crime, Duterte also vowed to solve these perennial problems within six months of his holding office. When the United States and other western countries criticized his war on drugs, he called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” for raising human rights concerns with him.

This strongman stance, however, obscures powerful undercurrents. Underneath all the bravado is a deep-seated insecurity exacerbated by massive online information campaigns, thereby resulting in a widespread defeatist attitude. Below, we examine the expression of this despondence in the Duterte administration’s pivot to China policy and neutrality in the Ukraine crisis. We also trace the origins of this stance to Filipino identity and culture, as well as the country’s longstanding alliance with the United States. Finally, we consider the ramifications of the 2022 elections that relied on an intricate information machinery and installed the former dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., as president and Duterte’s daughter Sara as vice president.

Manifestations of Defeatism

Duterte’s jet ski pronouncement masks an underlying and persistent insecurity towards China. Acknowledging China’s more superior military, Duterte argued that he did not want to aggravate China because doing so could unnecessarily cost Filipino lives. As discussed below, this was the logic behind his pivot to China policy and the administration’s stance in the Ukraine crisis.

In many ways, the Philippines’ pivot to China is unsurprising as there had always been a tension and a frustration borne of a violent colonial history and America’s “democratizing mission” to the Philippines. Thus, the decision to not renew the American military bases in Clark and Subic in the early 1990s rode on anti-US rhetoric. Likewise, the move was seen as an assertion of Filipino independence. It was this history that set the stage for Duterte, who made it clear very early during his term that he was separating from the United States and reinvigorating relations with China.

In one of his State of the Nation Addresses, he said, “I have nothing against America…but if you put bases here [again], you will double the spectacle of a most destructive thing just like Manila during the Second World War – during the retaking of this city…. [So if we put American bases] at this time, this will ensure [that] if war breaks out, because there would be atomic arsenals brought in, this will ensure the extinction of the Filipino race.”

Rhetoric like this betrays an affinity towards – and even an appeasement of – China. A similar rhetoric is echoed by others in his administration. For example, a provincial governor objected to live-fire exercises between the Philippines and the United States under the aegis of the 2022 Balikatan exercises because “we don’t want to anger China”.

The clearest expression of defeatism, however, is in regard to the South China Sea disputes, this despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s award in 2016 unanimously in favor of the Philippines. China claims that the award is immaterial because it never agreed to the arbitration proceedings in the first place. This notwithstanding, the award is a victory for the Philippines.

Furthermore, while enforcement is constrained by international law and the military mismatch between China and the Philippines, there are ways and means that a country like the latter can use to leverage its position. The President, however, doubled down on setting the award aside and justified China’s incursion in the West Philippine Sea by arguing that the Philippines is caught in the crosshairs of a brewing US-China conflict.

He said, “China [is] building structures and military bases, I must admit it. But is it intended for us? You must be joking. It’s not intended for us…. It’s really intended against those who the Chinese think would destroy them, and that is America. Wala tayong kasali diyan. (We’re not a party to that fight.) Then why would I go there…bring my Navy, my soldiers, my police, and everything only to be slaughtered? I will not commit the lives of the Filipinos only to die unnecessarily. I will not go into a battle which I can never win.”

Here we see a different rhetoric than the bold, flag-planting, gunfight-or-fistfight claims of the Duterte campaign; rather we see a fatalist (and isolationist) view.

A parallel rhetoric is as follows: “…unless we are prepared to go to war, I would suggest that we better just call off and treat this, I said, with diplomatic endeavors. China is claiming it. We are claiming it. China has the arms, we do not have it. So, it is simple as that. They are in possession of the property…. So what can we do? We have to go to war and I cannot afford it. Maybe some other president can, but I cannot. Inutil ako diyan, sabihin ko sa inyo. (I’m useless when it comes to that, I’m telling you.) And I’m willing to admit it. Talagang inutil ako diyan. Wala akong magawa. (I’m really useless. I cannot do anything.)”

Considering the administration’s resigned attitude regarding the South China Sea, it is no wonder it announced its neutrality in the Ukraine crisis. Saying that “it’s not our battle to fight”, Duterte’s inclination was to avoid any position to ensure that the country would not be dragged into a war.

Even though the Philippines voted to support the United Nations General Assembly resolution that condemned the invasion, Duterte’s neutrality makes sense, considering his plans early in his administration of acquiring weapons from Russia, including aircraft and submarines. However, when the United States advised the Philippines against purchasing Russian submarines, Duterte responded, “You sold us six helicopters. One or two or three crashed already…. Is that the way you treat an ally and you want us to stay with you for all times? Who are you to warn us?”

The US$249 million deal for Mi-17 helicopters went through in November 2021 with an initial payment made in January 2022. It is against this context that the Philippines opted for a neutral policy, a move that earned the praise of Russia’s ambassador to the Philippines.

The Philippines’ defeatist stance is the price to pay for a tit-for-tat strategy. After all, a reinvigorated bilateral relationship with China translated to support for Duterte’s war on drugs despite mounting criticisms from not only the United States, but also the European Union and the International Criminal Court that found evidence of crimes against humanity being perpetrated in the country.

Aside from this, closer ties with China meant support for Duterte’s flagship Build, Build, Build program, to which China offered US$24 billion in investment pledges in 2016. However, the return on investment is lacking as Duterte ended his term in 2022.

China also benefited from the exchange. For one, the 2016 arbitration award has been downplayed and any talk about the South China Sea was marginalized during the Philippines’ chairmanship in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2017. Furthermore, maritime incidents involving the Chinese militia and Filipino fisherfolk were understated, and the patrols and presence of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) were constrained. As long as the Philippines’ position remains the same, China can be assured of enjoying these benefits indefinitely.

This defeatism, however, did not begin only with the Duterte administration in 2016. It is worth noting an entrenched and internalized Filipino value. Generally speaking, Filipinos are generous of spirit and hospitable to a fault. A function of this is the desire to not want to offend anyone. The default, therefore, is to be non-confrontational. Hence, caving into China’s assertive moves in the South China Sea and appeasing the rising power in exchange for support in the war on drugs and in infrastructure projects – while not necessarily morally correct – become logical.

Another factor that can explain defeatism is the security guarantee provided by the United States through: 1) the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT); 2) the subsequent arrangements, including the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which details the range of movement for US military personnel in the Philippines and the conduct of joint military exercises that eventually led to the annual Balikatan exercises, and; 3) the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which allows the United States to rotate troops in the Philippines and to build facilities – and therefore granting access to American planes and ships – on Philippine bases. In short, the existence of this triad of agreements makes the need for permanent American military bases in the Philippines unnecessary. This was a good compromise, given the strong anti-US sentiment that prompted the closure of the Clark and Subic bases in 1992.

While joint military activities and defense cooperation remain robust regardless of who sits in power, institutionalized cooperation ironically engendered complacency on the part of the Philippines. Arguably, institutionalized cooperation fostered deep professional linkages between the two countries, and it was these connections that allowed the endurance and resilience of the alliance. Seeing the alliance as the default security guarantor placed the Philippines in a comfortable position that transformed into complacency.

This complacency, however, cannot vanquish insecurities, especially in regard to the extent to which the United States would invoke the alliance in the face of persistent Chinese gray zone operations in the South China Sea. In this regard, calls to review the MDT were especially strong under the Duterte administration due to perceived asymmetries within the alliance. In fact, Duterte vacillated between abrogating the VFA, to suspending the abrogation and finally to cancelling the abrogation altogether. Observers argue, however, that revising the MDT simply to further obligate the United States to aid the Philippines will be counterproductive in the long term.

Implications of Defeatism

The swirling threads of defeatism in the Philippines became fertile ground for information operations that propelled the restoration of the Marcos family into power. Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. ruled the country from 1965 to 1986 in what is known and documented as one of the most violent periods in Philippine history. Now that the 2022 elections have wrapped up, the dictator’s son, Ferdinand Jr., is the President.

To many, Marcos’ win is not a surprise, given his consistently wide lead in pre-election surveys. To others, this made little sense because Marcos was equally consistent in being absent during presidential debates and has numerous issues involving his candidacy, educational background, and estate tax liability.

What is clear is the vast information ecosystem on which the Marcos campaign relied on and utilized for years prior to the 2022 elections. Marcos benefited from coordinated amplification online – particularly of stories that depict the martial law years under Marcos Sr. as the “glory days” or the “golden age” of the country – through an extensive network of pages and groups on social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and TikTok. Besides historical revisionism, the information ecosystem exaggerated the Marcos family’s success and vilified the opposition.

The new battlefield is truly in the cybersphere. This becomes even more concerning because knowledge production and narratives in social media inevitably shape foreign policy and international relations. The South China Sea disputes are a good example. As the Philippines proceeds with the modernization program of its armed forces, there must be a corresponding transition in strategic thinking from defense to deterrence. Currently, the National Defense Strategy is still built on the concept of “minimum credible defense” as a response to hostile acts.

The prerequisites of deterrence, that is, actions that need to be taken even prior to the emergence of hostilities, are still largely missing in Philippine discussions. One reason for this is that since the Cold War and especially during Marcos Sr.’s time, the Philippine military has been tasked to handle internal security operations, especially counter-insurgency operations. The assumption was that external security could be handled by the alliance with the United States. In this sense, the Philippines engaged in a classic buck-passing move insofar as its external security was concerned. Not only did this cement the complacency on the part of the Philippines, but this also made transitioning from defense to deterrence more difficult, especially since the move will require calculations involving gray zone operations, such as China’s maritime militia in the South China Sea and Chinese counter-narratives about the contested waters.

Another aspect of the South China Sea that can be imperiled by online narratives is the need to decouple the disputes from Chinese development assistance. The entrenchment of the issue solely in the political and security realm implies that the choice for the Philippines is to either confront China militarily or to befriend it in the hopes that it could be persuaded from further incursions in the West Philippine Sea. Online narratives depict the choice as strictly binary, but there are alternatives that the Philippines can pursue.

First, the disputes can be framed as a food security issue. The South China Sea contains 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of oil. It also contains rich fishing grounds of up to 27 percent of the Philippines’ commercial fisheries production. China’s unabated construction of artificial islands compounded the pressures of overfishing, clam extraction, dredging for the construction of artificial reefs and other features, and hydrofracking. Thus, fisher folks’ inability to access fishing grounds translates into higher market prices and uncertainty in regular provisions for their families and communities.

Second, the South China Sea can be reframed as an environmental issue. The waters contain diverse ecosystems ranging from 3,000 species of fish and 600 species of coral reef, mangrove and seagrass, as well as turtles and seabirds that depend on the islands therein. The destruction of the marine environment as a result of the construction of artificial islands disrupts the natural processes of the ecosystems. Furthermore, it robs coastal communities the opportunity to sustainably rely on and replenish the natural marine resources.

Attention likewise needs to shift to the critical role of the blue economy, which is crucial to maritime safety and security. A vibrant blue economy hinges on sustainable coastal tourism, improved port infrastructure, and managed and regulated fishing. Coastal welfare is an important part of this equation because economic insecurity onshore usually translates to illicit maritime activities. Hence, improved maritime governance in fisheries, to begin with, can prevent coastal populations from turning to criminal networks and activities such as piracy incidents, armed robbery at sea, human smuggling, trafficking, slavery, and illicit trade of drugs and wildlife, among others. Likewise, better maritime governance can prevent people from having to resort to illegal means to exploit maritime resources.


Defeatism in the Philippines has been expressed primarily through the Duterte administration’s pivot to China policy. The same thread is reprised in the South China Sea and more recently in the Ukraine crisis. The stance is, to a certain extent, rooted in the Filipino values of deference and generosity, but another explanation can be the resulting complacency arising from the security guarantees by the country’s sole treaty alliance with the United States.

Defeatism thus seems to be entrenched, and this became fertile ground for the massive information campaign that propelled Marcos to win the 2022 election cycle. As the Philippines embarks on a new administration, there is all the more reason to carefully examine the extent to which vast information ecosystems can impact foreign policy.

If left unchecked, the complications for the Philippines can be catastrophic as this leads to intensified democratic erosion and further divisions in society. Likewise, this can diminish even more the clout and centrality on which ASEAN – the region’s premier grouping – depends, especially if China continues its assertive moves in the South China Sea and the negotiations on the Code of Conduct remain stalled. The global impact is not so much rooted on defeatism per se, but on what defeatism engenders. The Philippines in this instance is the proverbial laboratory in terms of the power of an online machinery to warp history, determine elections and chart the future.


The author is grateful for the invaluable research assistance of Peggy-Jean Allin and Jihyun Kang. This essay was produced with the support of a grant from the Office of Naval Research (ONR N00014-21-1-2121). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed here are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding organization.

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

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  • Dr. Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Studies of De La Salle University. Her areas of specialization are ASEAN’s external relations, security cooperation, and critical international relations theory. She is a frequent resource speaker in various Track Two fora and roundtables by national government agencies.