What The Philippines Must Do To Defend Itself From China

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 9, September 2019

A U.S. marine watches as Philippine Marines raise their flag over the naval station, 1992. Source: NARA & DVIDS Public Domain Archive.

Sannie Evan Malala
West Visayas State University

The Philippines is strategically located in Southeast Asia, at the fault-line between Communist China and the democratic nations of the Americas and Europe. In the north is East Asia, full of wealthy market democracies in increasing conflict with China. To the southwest are countries seeking to defend their exclusive economic zones from China, including Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei. As China’s power grows, the fault-line is widening and trying to straddle the middle will only result in our falling into the chasm. The Philippines must choose a side – subservience to China or joining a coalition of the willing in defense of each country’s independence and democracy from the Chinese hegemon. The Philippines has yet to take advantage of its full potential and has become economically poor and militarily weak, primarily due to corruption, internal armed struggle, and its growing relationship with China. For the Philippines to avoid being a satellite of China, this is what we must do.

Philippines Must Build Strong Armed Forces

For decades the Philippines neglected strengthening its military and external defense capability. First, it was overly dependent on the United States for its external defense. After the Second World War the Philippines was given independence by the United States, with which it continued to be a primary regional ally, and received development and military aid from the United States. This dependence on the United States for its military development was one of the reasons for negligence of its own national defense capabilities.

A second reason for the Philippines’ neglect of its defense capabilities is economic incapacity. This started under former Philippine strongman Ferdinand Marcos. In the 1950s and early 1960s the Philippine economy ranked as the second most progressive in Asia, next to that of Japan. After 1965, when Ferdinand E. Marcos became president, the nation experienced economic problems and social unrest, especially from the 1970s, when corruption and cronyism (the practice of appointing friends to well-paid posts regardless of their qualifications) took hold. In less than 20 years, the Philippines went from relative prosperity to becoming the “sick man of Asia” (1). As it plunged into poverty, the next Philippine administration prioritized socioeconomic upliftment for the people, and military development was neglected. Government revenues decreased, with little available for defense spending.

Third is the insurgency. For decades, the Philippines has been preoccupied with internal armed struggle with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed component, the New People’s Army (NPA). There is also the Muslim rebellion in the southern Philippines. These rebellions compel the government to focus on quelling internal armed struggle rather than acquiring the kinds of weapons necessary for external defense.

Finally, there is laxity on national defense against neighbor countries brought by the nation’s banking on the existing cordial relationship with its neighbors — a view proving to be totally wrong when a nation treated as a friend, China, seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012, some maritime features in the Spratly Islands, and prevented the Philippines from exploring mineral resources in the Reed Bank.

Philippines Must Take a Stance Against China

China is an ancient empire, born of conquest and bloodshed. They previously called their country Zhongguo or Middle Kingdom, believing that they were in the middle of the world. On the evidence, they apparently continue to feel this way. Their expansionist territorial claims are many. In December 1947, China adopted a claim using the Nine-dash line map (2), sketched dashes in a U-shape that surround the South China Sea. In 1962, China’s People’s Liberation Army invaded India in the Himalayas. In 1979 China invaded Vietnam. In 1988 China attacked Vietnamese forces on Johnson South Reef. China also claims the Senkaku Islands of Japan, has had a standoff with Indonesia in Natuna waters on March 2016, and threatens to use military force to take Taiwan.

China is fast expanding its military. Speaking at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, President Xi Jinping pledged to ensure that by 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would basically achieve its mechanization, make big strides in informatization, and gain substantial improvement in strategic capabilities. He also set a midterm goal for the Chinese military — to turn itself into a modernized power by 2035 — as well as a long-term one — to become a top-tier military by 2050. (3)

According to a Pentagon report, China continues to modernize its armed forces in order to transform its military into a major global power, and uses espionage to steal cutting edge technology for military purposes. The report also details the growth in China’s defense budget and military capabilities, saying, “China’s defense budget has nearly doubled during the past 10 years.” (4)

Though Chinese authorities deny their ambition for world dominance, the rest of the world can easily read their plan. Aside from expanding its military might one unique attribute of this empire is its economic master plan. Central to this is the “One Belt, One Road” initiative. It’s a staggeringly massive development project spanning dozens of countries — the most ambitious global engineering endeavor the world has seen since the Roman Empire. The overland “belt” entails highways, railways, and all their supporting infrastructure, including power and the internet, across multiple land routes from western China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe. The maritime “road” part consists of new ports, ships, and sea routes from southern China across the Indian Ocean to Africa and through the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. (5) This is China’s measure to ensure unhampered exports for her economy. A country’s military financing capability is relative to its economic might. China aims for sustainable military growth that will expand with its growing economic empire.

Given China’s ambitious strengthening of the PLA to become a world superpower, intellectual property theft, a master plan for global economic dominance, territorial expansion, threats to its neighbors, and widespread domestic human rights abuses and ethnocide, the Asian hegemon is the most serious global threat of today.

Philippines Must Learn From History: the Sino-Indian War of 1962

India and China are neighbors having common borders along the Himalayan mountain range. India never suspected that China would launch an attack, but it did. India was attacked on October 20, 1962 in what came to be known as the Sino-India War of 1962. The mistaken belief that China would not attack lulled the Indian army into neglecting preparations and resulted in a standoff between 10,000-20,000 Indian troops and 80,000 Chinese troops. The war continued for about a month and ended on November 21, after China declared a ceasefire. (6)

In the Philippines, one of the reasons why the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) was not modernized is the belief that its friendly relations with its neighbors would protect them from an invasion or armed attacks. That hope rested on other countries following the same rule of justice and peace, as suggested by Article II, Sec. 2 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. As we now know, the ideal of peace and justice only works when both parties show it respect.

We persist in our idealistic illusion even now. Despite tensions in the South China Sea, the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assured Filipinos of China’s good intentions. “You know, Red China or Communist China just wants to be friends with us,” Duterte said.(7) This overly optimistic belief in other countries’ good intentions, even when plainly contradicted by history and the daily news, is what lulls the Philippines into complacency and the neglect of its military defense.

The Philippines must learn from the experience with China of another South Asian country half a century ago. Because of his cordial relations with China, Prime Minister Nehru believed that China would not attack. Because of that belief India did not prepare for war against China. Though trusting other countries is good, one must know how to distinguish status quo from revisionist countries. China is an expansionist empire whose leaders have not yet waken up from a delusion of their growing empire. They are therefore attempting to revise their borders to the detriment of their neighbors. China’s treatment of Tibetans and Uyghurs, the Tiananmen massacre and China’s history of aggression to its neighbors demonstrates that no country should trust China. Rather, they must prepare for war to achieve peace through strength.

The Philippines’ incapability to defend its territory against other countries leave others an opportunity to intrude on its maritime domain, as in the outcome of the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012. Due to China’s aggression, a weak Philippine military, and a lack of support from the United States, China took control after the standoff. (8) After the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award to the Philippines, China just ignored the ruling, and flew a nuclear-capable bomber over the shoal to make its point: might makes right. That is why even with the present supposedly cordial relation with its neighbors, the Philippines must still strengthen its armed forces.

Philippines Must Modernize its Armed Forces

In 2012 the Philippine Congress passed the Republic Act (RA) 10349 (9), amending RA 7898, establishing the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program. At that time the Philippine government saw the importance of having a strong and modern armed forces. During his six years in office, President Benigno Aquino III accelerated military modernization to a pace that was unrivaled after the Marcos era. Yet, it remains insufficient. (10)

President Rodrigo Duterte reaffirmed his commitment to continue the AFP’s modernization but shifted in priority. Under President Aquino, the focus was to strengthen the AFP’s capability to address external threats, particularly to protect its territorial waters, and advance its maritime domain awareness. President Duterte’s focus, which fits into China’s strategy with itself as regional hegemon and sovereign of the South China Sea, is counter terrorism and internal threats.(11) Duterte is turning the AFP’s guns from pointing outwards to defend Philippine sovereignty, towards the center against internal rebellion. As noted, focusing defense spending on internal threats weakens external defense, all else equal. The AFP and the Philippine National Police have very capably dealt with this internal threat. Modernizing the external defense capability is a separate concern which does not depend on whether government forces can crush terrorism immediately or not. It should not be an excuse and a field from which to divert priority resources needed by external defense. After three years of Duterte in office no major external defense assets and weaponry have been added except continuing those already programed during the past administration.

Though the second phase of the military modernization plan has been approved by President Duterte (12), the specific items that the AFP will acquire depends on the priorities of the present administration. As China’s military strength continues to grow, the present administration must not make other internal concerns an excuse for neglecting its external defense.

Philippines Must Increase Defense Spending

In 2018 the Philippines had a GDP of United States$330.8 billions (13). It had $3.7B military expenditures (14), just about 1.1 percent of GDP (15). This is below the average world defense expenditure of 2.14 percent of GDP. The same data show other countries that have border and maritime conflict with China have higher spending like Vietnam at 2.3 percent and India at 2.4 percent of their GDP. This shows that even during intrusion by, and military conflict with, China, and despite its ostensible military modernization program, the Philippines continues to neglect external defense. Its allocation to AFP Modernization is merely to assuage demands for AFP modernization but not to seriously defend the country’s territory and maritime domain.

The Philippine government must be sincere in its national defense efforts. The budget for the military must be increased to 4 percent of GDP for five years considering the huge task of filling the backlog for new military assets. Only after modernization should it be reduced to 2 – 3 percent of GDP, conditions allowing. Unless enough funding is given to acquiring new equipment and weaponry, it cannot be said that the Philippines is truly defending its territory and maritime domain.

Philippines Must Ally More Closely With The United States

In the last century the United States maintained military bases in the Philippines. Two of these were major military bases, the Clark Air Base and the Subic Naval Base.

In the post-World War II era, Clark Air Base became the largest United States military air base outside the United States and a vital connecting link with United States forces in South Korea and, later, Southeast Asia. During the Vietnam War (1955–75), Clark Air Base served as a strategic supply base and fighter-squadron installation. (16) The Subic Naval Base played a role in every major United States military engagement between 1898 and 1992. In October 1968, at the height of the Vietnam War, it took in 47 United States Navy ships in a single day. Seventy percent of supplies for the 1991 Gulf war flowed through Subic. (17)

Geographic, monetary and political reasons led the United States to close these bases. On June 15, 1991 Mount Pinatubo, 14 km from Clark, erupted affecting both bases but more so Clark Air Base. On September 13, 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to reject a lease extension on the bases, ending almost a century of American military presence. (18) Clark Air Base closed in 1991 and the Subic Naval Base closed in 1992.

With a vacuum of power in the region, China became aggressive on their territorial claims. In 1995, China seized Mischief (Panganiban) Reef from the Philippines. Mischief Reef, located 125 nautical miles from Palawan, is a low-tide elevation (LTE) within the Philippines EEZ. In 1988, China seized Subi Reef, which lies within the continental shelf of the Philippines, by erecting a radar structure and military facilities on the reef. (19) By 2015 China had built seven artificial islands in Spratly.

China’s aggression prompted the return of United States forces in the Philippines, but only on a temporary, rolling basis. This is hardly enough to deter China. At present the United States is building facilities for visiting United States forces on five Philippine military bases under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The pact allows United States forces and contractors to operate temporarily at agreed locations in the Philippines. It stipulates that the United States cannot set up permanent bases — the revised Philippine constitution bans that — but it hands over operational control of the locations to United States forces and allows them to stockpile defense equipment and supplies. (20)

It would be for the mutual benefit of both countries, the Philippines and United States, that the United States has permanent military bases in the Philippines. We should enact a treaty as required by the Philippine Constitution in order to facilitate this basing. There should of course always be the proviso that we can demand and enforce the eviction of the United States as in the early 1990s. The United States left then, and there is no reason to believe that they will not again be polite guests if asked to leave by their hosts, the sovereign Philippine government.

The United States may find a new strategic location in Palawan, the Visayas or Northern Mindanao for the new bases. For the Filipinos, the return of United States bases means that an ally is here and is more decisive in having greater operational capability. United States bases will serve as a tripwire that China would be wary of triggering with an invasion. For the United States, these would allow more freedom and security for United States forces and equipment, and, in times of war, a more reliable source of supply.

Philippines Must Expand Military Alliances To Other Countries

Considering China’s military might against the Philippine’s weak armed forces, the Philippines would have no chance of success in a one-on-one military confrontation. But since standing against China’s expansionism is also a concern of all countries regionally, and most countries in the international community, the Philippines has the opportunity, which it should take, to increase alliances and cooperation with regional countries that are against China. China has a quantitative advantage with respect to economic and military resources compared to all of its neighbors. This shows the need for other countries to pool and share assets when confronted by China.

The Philippines has an existing Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, which should be strengthened. Together with other regional allies like Japan and Australia, they are working together for regional stability and defense cooperation. The AFP benefits from alliances as due to its weak economic capability, the Philippines receives development and military assistance from allies.

Last February the Philippines received two 12 meter high-speed boats from the Japanese government (21). And last March Japan turned over its excess spare parts for military helicopters and maintenance equipment worth P2.5 billion ($50M) to the Philippine Air Force (22). Australia focuses more on military training and technical support. Australia also allocated about A$85 million for development assistance this year. (23) And, the Philippines is the largest recipient of American military assistance in the region, valued at over P15 billion for the past three years. (24)

Philippines Must Improve Economic Security

To a great extent, military strength is dependent upon economic strength. In the present world one of the major determinants of how strong a country’s military can be is its economic strength. A strong economy gives the government finances on which the military depends. A strong economy is more sustainable than just depending on military aid. A strong military needs a strong economy to sustain it. Likewise, a strong economy needs a strong military to defend it.

The Philippines must strive to be an economic power. It must realize its strategic location and exploit it to become a center for trade and finance in the region. It must shift from relying on agricultural exports to regain its former position as the region’s manufacturing hub.

Philippines Must Obtain Independent Nuclear Deterrence

Many in the Philippines argue that it is better not to engage in any row with China and better not to insist on the country’s rights, for the Philippines is only a far smaller and militarily weaker country compared to China. This is appeasement – hoping that China will stop its territorial aggression if only we give what it asks today. But actually, whatever China takes strengthens it to demand even more tomorrow.

One option is to obtain a weapon that is so powerful that China dare not risk antagonizing the Philippines to the point where the Philippines would use such a weapon. The only such weapon available to the Philippines for such a purpose would be a nuclear weapon on an intermediate range missile, of either the cruise or ballistic variety. Such a weapon would need to be hidden from China, which would mean obtaining multiple ballistic missile submarines, and/or stealth aircraft. Hypersonic missiles are needed to evade Chinese missile defense.

This would be expensive, but the United States and other countries threatened by China should have an incentive to help us. If China takes over the Philippine EEZ in the South China Sea, or the Philippine islands, China can use that to strengthen itself and then take over more, for example Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, or Japan. We cannot count on the United States to defend the Philippines with its own nuclear weapons, if the United States was not even willing to defend Mischief Reef or Scarborough Shoal with conventional force.

All of these countries should have an incentive to assist the Philippines in effectively defending itself, including through acquisition of a nuclear deterrent. In order to achieve this goal, Article II, Section 8 of the1987 Philippine constitution should be amended, allowing the nation to have an independent nuclear deterrent force (25).


The Philippines aims to have a minimum credible defense posture. But it should not just stop at that aim. The Philippines needs a strategy and the force necessary, along with allies, to survive and win a war. A nuclear deterrent is essential for this in order to avoid another enemy occupation of the Philippines. The economic capability of the Philippines is the primary factor that limits AFP Modernization. The expansion of our economy is necessary to secure our defense, as is the effective communication to our allies that a strong Philippines is the first line of defense for not only us, but for them. That is why this is a call for the Philippine government to strengthen our alliances, economy, and military. Nothing less will suffice to protect Philippine sovereignty during these unstable times.

Sannie Evan Malala is a graduate of Biological Science and Mass Communications from West Visayas State University in the Philippines. JPR Status: Opinion.


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