Remove Duterte And Modernize The Armed Forces Philippines

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 10, October 2018 

Filipino Armed Forces at Fort Magsaysay, 2003. Soure: NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive.

Anonymous Filipino

This is a critical time for the Philippines, in terms of economics, politics, and national defense. Immediately at the start of President Rodrigo Duterte’s term the congress was already submissive to him. There were just a few dissenting Senators. But Duterte is taking them down one by one, especially the opposition stalwarts. Senator Leila de Lima was accused of a sham case, conspiracy to commit illegal drug trading (1), and is now in prison. Senator Antonio Trillanes is having his amnesty revoked [2]. Duterte is under criminal investigation, breaking the Constitution, running the Philippines into the ground, and gradually giving our sovereignty away to China. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) is slowly losing its allies and competitive edge against China, the Philippines’ biggest threat. Duterte should immediately be removed, and the AFP should seek the help from its traditional allies to quickly modernize.

For a while, the Judiciary stood its ground in affirming its independence against an increasingly aggressive executive in the form of President Duterte. But with persistent threats and agitations against its members, the Supreme Court had finally given way to pressures and ousted former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno (3) through quo warranto proceedings, even as the received extensive criticism as unconstitutional.

Duterte also holds the loyalty of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) through monetary considerations. He doubled their salaries (4), a tactic used by hardliners before the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union against democratization there. His popularity among the Filipino people was as high as 80 percent, though now it is variable due to worsening economic conditions (5).

This high approval of the President is due to the upsurge of social media, where they had found an opportunity to bombard there fake news and demolition of the integrity of the opposition leaders. Together with the opportunity on social media, they discredited the mainstream media to sow doubt about the integrity of its news. The same is now happening in the United States. Any media outlet that will give news unfavorable of the Duterte administration is labeled as biased. Thus, they dominate the people’s minds through social media.

Duterte now controls the three branches of the Philippine government. He also has the loyalty of the AFP and the support of fanatics among the people. More danger is looming on the horizon, as Filipinos are relaxing on the confidence that there will be peace and order up to the future, or they are just satisfied to live in the present, mindless of what’s ahead. China’s strengthening of its armed forces continues. It is making all-out efforts to become a world-class force by 2050 (6). Its manufacturing plants making weapons, don’t stop. Russia sold around US$15 billion worth of weapons to the Chinese in 2017 (7). It did not revoke its claim to the South China Sea. China’s expansionist plan is long term. Though they may pretend to cease for now, China will continue its expansion in the near future, unless properly dealt with.

One of the proper measures to contain China is for the Philippines to stand its ground. The Philippines is vital to China’s control of the South China Sea, and a gateway to the Pacific.

Aside from its strategic location, the Philippines has abundant mineral resources which can be China’s source of raw material and energy. China and the Duterte administration are planning joint exploration (8) of the West Philippine Sea, particularly on the oil-rich areas of Reed bank. This will give China many advantages, especially, a near source of energy. This is disadvantageous to the democratic allies of the Philippines, and runs contrary to the United States’ effort of containing China through economic means.

Despite Duterte’s foul words against the West, his ascension to the presidency on 2016 had some temporary good effects on the allies, especially on the concern that China might build on Scarborough Shoal during that critical period just before the November 2016 United States Presidential election when Obama would more likely not engage in a major conflict against China. Duterte befriended China and posed as its ally. The tactic first appeared to pay off, as China did not build on Scarborough.

But that strategy of Duterte may bind his hands from modernizing the AFP. Duterte had been in office for more than two years, and he had not yet made any major asset acquisition under his administration, just intentions. Those two frigates (9) being built in Korea are initiated under the previous administration. Duterte repeatedly reiterated to the public that he would not oppose China on sea activity (10) and its intrusion on Philippine waters. He also criticized the former administration’s purchase of 12 FA-50 fighter jets as a waste of money (11). Duterte’s coldness on modernizing the AFP is consistent.

Section 3.a of the Republic Act 7898, otherwise known as “An Act Providing for the Modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and for Other Purposes” gives the objective of AFP Modernization “To develop its capability to uphold the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic and to secure the national territory from all forms of intrusion and encroachment”. While Section 5.a.3 provides that the AFP shall develop its naval defense capability to enable it to “Defend the Philippine territorial seas, all its internal waters, as well as its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), from all forms of illegal intrusion or passage” (12).

However, the Duterte administration’s effort to modernize the AFP is almost futile. As an example, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) is looking to procure 12 multirole fighters (MRF) combat aircraft (13). This is a very insignificant number compared to China’s huge fleet of around 1,700 combat aircraft (14). Also, China possesses “five nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSN), four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), and 54 diesel-powered attack submarines (SS). By 2020, this force will likely grow to between 69 and 78 submarines.” (15) The Philippines is planning to procure just more than one submarine. The present amount of purchases that the AFP under the Duterte administration plans to make is insufficient and will be ineffectual.

Trump is the first United States President for decades who is trying to draw a bold line against China. This is a window of opportunity that must be taken advantage by the Philippines to modernize its Armed Forces, since major efforts by the Philippines on building a strong and modern Armed Forces may possibly draw concerns from China, interpret it as against them, infuriate them, or make them more aggressive in their territorial expansion as a message to the people of its surrounding countries to always be on good terms with China.

We don’t know until when Trump will remain as US President. Or, after Trump, whether the next US president will be as decisive as him. If not, the Philippines must already be capable of standing its ground at that time, with an alliance with Japan and Vietnam.

That is why it is a good thing for the Philippines and other allied countries if Duterte would be out of office next year. The sooner, the better. We may not know what his true intentions are for befriending China or for giving the Philippines a watered down modernization effort. It might be any of a number of reasons: an independent foreign policy, his animosity towards the Americans, his socialism, personal gains, or avoidance of major military conflict. We can’t be certain.

Perhaps, he delays modernizing the AFP so as not to make the Philippines appear as fooling China since it just seeks friendship. Or maybe, he thinks that if the Philippines is not militarily capable it will in no way engage with China in a military confrontation, thus pulling the Philippines away from the dangers of being involved in war. But the reality is that, whether the Philippines wants it or not, it will surely be involved, for it is at the pathway of China’s projection as a dominant world power. A lack of concern for national defense and security will only be seen by China as a good opportunity to make an advance.

Nonetheless, Duterte must resign. With his control over the three branches of the Philippine government, the loyalty of the military and majority of the people’s support, how can his removal be realized? Removing Duterte at present while he still enjoys popular support, even if possible with the military, is not ideal. The next administration would not in that case have political stability. A stable and economically progressive Philippines is needed for it to efficiently resist China’s expansion. Duterte’s popularity must first wane considerably. Fanaticism towards him is strong for the moment. Only when fanatics are negatively affected for some time by Duterte’s policies will they abandon their unquestioning loyalty towards their leader.

Duterte has a pending case before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity in the course of the government’s deadly crackdown on drugs (16). Soon the ICC will render its verdict. And considering his public pronouncements on killings, former employees who have testified against him, and the thousands who died amidst his ‘war on drugs’, the verdict will likely be unfavorable for him. Though the Court has no effective enforcement, European leaders will likely lobby for the Philippine government to turn over Duterte. For a moment, the Philippines will neglect the pleading of the Court and the European leaders. They will resort to economic pressure. As an ally, the US will cooperate with the EU and join the sanctions.

The Philippine economy is currently deteriorating. As people are affected by the economic crisis, their bitterness towards Duterte will increase. The Congress may remove Duterte through impeachment, but this will take time. The military, nonetheless, may take a shorter route. It is in the interests of the United States to take a tough stance against China, if it becomes aggressive due to Duterte’s removal. It is also in the interests of the United States to accelerate true AFP modernization.

After two years of Duterte’s removal, the Philippine’s offensive and defensive system must already be in place. To finance this, the Philippine’s military budget, which at present is just 1.4 percent (17) of GDP, must temporarily increase to 3 percent of the country’s GDP. This is to make up for the Philippines’ current external defense capability deficit. Its weak external defense capability is due to decades of neglect.

For the Philippines’ long term national defense capability, and for regional stability, it is in allied countries’ interest to help make the Philippine economy strong so that it can have enough finances to maintain a strong military. And China must be sanctioned because of its intrusions. Through these measures, China’s expansionist capability will be blocked.

The Philippines has all the right to either defend the West Philippine Sea or leave it to China. With the proper weapons the AFP is very much willing to defend the West Philippine Sea. But with antiquated equipment the AFP will just watch the Chinese reclaim the maritime features in the SCS. This is the importance of modernizing the AFP, as soon as possible. But the first step is Duterte’s removal.

This author preferred to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals against him in the Philippines. Granting authors anonymity in conflict or lawless areas is necessary for their safety when they have dissenting opinions that might cause retaliation. JPR Status: Opinion.


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