A national defence strategy for the Philippines

Manila’s recently published national security policy recognises that there are multifaceted threats to the country. Some of these threats are more urgent than others, and the fiscal environment in the Philippines makes the task of prioritising funding for more immediate threats increasingly difficult.

This is why a national defence strategy that takes a hard-nosed look into security threats that have a bearing on the Philippines’ territorial integrity is essential now more than ever. There are four categories the Department of National Defense (DND) should look at: external threats; humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; emerging issues such as cybersecurity and advanced technologies; and internal security and public safety.

The South China Sea will remain the Philippines’ top security concern precisely because it is an existential problem. The DND and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) should refocus their attention on the issue. China seems undeterred by the approach that the Philippines has taken. Defense planners and strategists must be realistic about the deceptive threat coming from Chinese assets, whether they are the navy, the coastguard or the maritime militia; there is simply no evidence that China plays so-called black-and-white diplomacy. The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the Israeli–Hamas conflict and the illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia are proof that unpreparedness for war remains the most existential threat to a nation’s independence, security and survival.

Given the Philippines’ geographic location, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief will be a critical component of the country’s defence plan. The Philippines experiences typhoons, volcanic eruptions and earthquakes on a regular basis. Responding to these disasters should be part and parcel of defence planning as it is only the AFP that has the logistical tools to act.

Recent incidents involving data breaches in several government agencies point to cyber infrastructure as a critical vulnerability of the country. That, along with the challenges and the disruptive nature of artificial intelligence and similar advanced technologies, means the DND and the AFP must be forward-looking in responding. The conflict matrix is ever evolving for every piece that shifts, whether big or small.

Threats to internal stability and public safety are an ongoing area of concern. However, the military can’t afford to focus too much on internal issues, simply because external concerns are far more urgent and far more critical. It is time to develop more coherent responses and timely analyses of internal threats by enabling public-safety services such as the coastguard, the police and the National Bureau of Investigation to respond to domestic security concerns. These agencies combined have the capacity in terms of sheer numbers to counter threats to public safety.

By focusing on these four threat areas, the DND and AFP can prioritise their plans and programs as well as propose realistic budgets that Congress can support.

More concretely, there are four important policy areas that the defence establishment needs to embark on. Much of what the Philippines has been doing for the past two decades has been catching up to the latest technology, doctrine or asset on the shelf. It needs to be more proactive in planning its defence posture.

Modernisation is a chief concern. Discussions on modernising the Philippines’ armed forces have advanced in recent years, but the same can’t be said with regard to the country’s internal security agencies. All security agencies need to modernise and that must include hardware and software upgrades. Beyond the desire to develop a shopping list of new assets to purchase, procurements must be directly related to Manila’s security needs and aligned with strategies that deal precisely with the threats it perceives in its strategic environment. With China’s President Xi Jinping unveiling plans and directions for the modernisation of People’s Liberation Army, particularly its naval assets, the Philippines should give greater attention and more resources to its navy and air force as the first line of military defence.

There’s also a need to re-examine the Philippines’ defence posture. It would take a level of candour and sobriety to admit that Manila isn’t where it wants to be in terms of capacity and capabilities, despite its recent efforts. Institutional reforms must be given overdue attention. The Philippines won’t be able to move forward, and at a pace commensurate with dynamic geopolitical realities, if its institutions don’t enact the necessary reforms.

This means dealing with the pension nightmare, right-sizing the AFP’s force structure to align with threat realities, and addressing procurement woes. Another important component is modernising the defence bureaucracy. Part of that needs to involve updating the rules governing the civil service so that it moves away from providing boxed solutions for personnel issues that preserve inefficiencies and protect tenure and towards an approach that focuses on rewarding innovation and prioritising national security interests.

Having the capacity for unilateral defence doesn’t mean that Manila should rely only on its own strength and on doing things alone. There must be a strong awareness that Manila can’t always do things its own way and that, ultimately, an independent foreign policy is one that expertly navigates the geopolitical realities of an otherwise uncertain security landscape and that is not born out of empty platitudes.

Manila must turn to its partners who share its values and appreciation of the international regime of laws and share in the burden of protecting the normative foundations of international relations. It must accept the fact that civility in interstate relations is often maintained by the credibility of a state’s force and its willingness to use it. Engaging and operating jointly or in coordination with like-minded countries in defence and security is the way forward.

Lastly, given all the attention the Philippines is receiving from its strategic partners, treaty ally and other potential partner countries, partnership and alliance management is becoming more important. This is the crux of the matter: the Philippines’ executive and legislative branches of government need to understand that its ally (the United States) and partners (Japan and Australia are some examples) are non-negotiable and foundational security realities, and that these must exist within the sovereign domain of its national integrity.

Manila needs to develop more coordinating mechanisms and crisis-management architecture while at the same time increasing its public diplomacy efforts to encourage mutual awareness. It should also demonstrate its alliance resolve by holding year-round war games and promoting more rotational deployments and the prolonged presence of strategic assets to prepare for the unthinkable regional scenarios.

If the Philippines pursues its national security interests by leveraging and balancing between internal and external needs, it will have demonstrated a truly independent foreign policy. And there’s no better way for the Philippines to display this than ending its self-imposed reactive ‘grey zone’ mindset, sailing in its internationally recognised maritime zones despite the PLA Navy’s presence, and leading an international coalition to compel compliance with agreed rules of international behaviour in regional and multilateral forums.