Editor’s Note: The following article is part of a new USIP essay series, “Southeast Asia in a World of Strategic Competition.” The opinions expressed in these essays are solely those of the authors and do not represent USIP, or any organization or government.

Maritime security is a critical issue for Southeast Asia and the geopolitical underpinnings of this topic cannot be underestimated. This is especially the case for small powers as they navigate a maritime domain that is caught in the middle of — and driven by — great power politics. While maritime security in Southeast Asia is often the stage on which the U.S.-China competition plays out, this extends beyond the competing claims of regional states in the South China Sea, with important environmental and resource issues also at stake. Within this context, the Philippines is in a unique position for three reasons.

Fishermen setting out nets off the coast of Bohol, the Philippines, April 11, 2018. (Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times)
Fishermen setting out nets off the coast of Bohol, the Philippines, April 11, 2018. (Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times)

First, the Philippines won an arbitration case in 2016, which said that China’s maritime and territorial claims and activities in Filipino waters in the South China Sea were unlawful. None of the other claimant states in Southeast Asia have gone so far as to lodge a case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Second, the Philippines has a longstanding alliance with the United States, which significantly impacts its relationship with China. Finally, in the face of increasing tensions between the United States and China, the Philippines is an important factor — and actor — in calculations about a possible Taiwan contingency. This is not only because of its alliance with the United States, but also because of its proximity to Taiwan — the Philippines’ northernmost islands are only 233 miles from Taiwan. For these reasons, the Philippines perspective on and approach to maritime security matters.

Shifting Foreign Policy

South China Sea disputes figure prominently in regional and national discussions in Southeast Asia and in the Philippines. While not necessarily a core election topic, issues surrounding the South China Sea (or the West Philippine Sea as many refer to it in the Philippines) still mattered in the 2022 national Filippino elections. Former president Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy sought to build closer relations with China despite the 2016 arbitration case. On the other hand, the winner of the 2022 election, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., has reversed course and reinvigorated the Philippines alliance with the United States.

From a geopolitics perspective, the Philippines navigates U.S.-China competition and Chinese challenges in the South China Sea through lawfare, as demonstrated by the case it brought against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013. The award that was released in 2016 was heavily in favor of the Philippines. Manila is now considering filing a second case in the court over allegations that Beijing is destroying corals reefs in the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone.

As the Philippines reinforces its commitments, like its Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States, the foreign policies of various Filipino administrations need to be calibrated in a way that ensures their alignment with international laws and treaties, like the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is where domestic variables pose hurdles to exercising a consistent and independent foreign policy.

A good example here are the shifts in the Philippines’ foreign policy from the administrations of President Benigno Aquino III to Duterte to the current president, Marcos. A common observation is that Philippine foreign policy oscillates depending on the sitting president. More than simple personality politics, however, there are complex domestic factors — such as colonial legacies — that come into play and can explain why the Philippines often exhibits inconsistent policies vis-à-vis the great powers, moving back and forth in terms of which power it’s closer to. When the Philippines moves closer to the United States, China tries to drive a wedge between the allies by conducting a wide range of economic coercive measures and gray-zone operations in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines’s shifting approach impacts the country’s international credibility.

Beyond Strategic Rivalry

Maritime security, however, is broader than geopolitics. For the Philippines, fisheries and food security are critical issues and China’s occupation of West Philippine Sea features has a major impact. For example, China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal translated to a decrease in fish stocks for Filipino fisherfolks, which drove illegal fishing up. This presents law enforcement challenges for the Philippines and has resulted in the creation of numerous agencies with overlapping mandates and areas of operation. At the most local level is the Bantay Dagat (Sea Patrol), composed of volunteers from coastal villages who patrol within nine miles of the shore. Limited resources constrain the Bantay Dagat from effective collaboration with government agencies like the Philippine National Police Maritime Group (PNP-MG) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG).

The fisheries issue illustrates why the Philippines needs to create an overarching strategic policy framework on maritime security. Currently, the Philippines lacks a framework that outlines its maritime interests, the measures needed to protect those interests and the authorized agencies to carry out those measures. Absent such a framework, the Philippines relies heavily on maritime law enforcement agencies.

The National Security Council is the government’s lead agency for coordinating the formulation of security policies. The Department of Foreign Affairs is another crucial agency, as well as the National Coast Watch Council. At the level of enforcement, the lead agencies are the Philippine Navy, the PCG, the PNP-MG and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. There are also ad-hoc arrangements like the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.

In addition, local government units have the authority to perform maritime law enforcement tasks, such as enforcing administrative fisheries policies, marine resource productivity and marine environment conservation within municipal waters. These mandates and jurisdictions often overlap, and responsibilities are duplicated, resulting in operational challenges like miscommunication, turfing and the inefficient use of resources. Ultimately, maritime law enforcement is uncoordinated, which is surprising considering that better bureaucratic coordination is essential if Manila is to protect its maritime interests in the absence of a broad strategic framework. Filipino lawmakers are keen on passing the Maritime Zones Act by the end of 2023, which can then be an instrument to leverage the 2016 arbitral ruling.

Apart from geopolitics and fisheries, maritime security is also an environmental issue. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing threatens the sustainability of marine ecosystems and fisheries by undermining conservation and management efforts and depleting fish stocks. In this sense, it is a direct food security threat, particularly to developing coastal and island nations. Apart from that, it also contributes to marine litter and pollution. Maritime security as an environmental concern is closely linked to resource management.

There is sufficient scientific evidence on the extent of biodiversity in the entire South China Sea and that China’s activities harm the ecosystems in these waters. The science is solid, but more studies are needed on the social costs of, for example, establishing protected marine areas. Local communities need the technical skills and know-how to carry out projects like coral reef restoration and conservation. In this context, identifying capacity-building measures in other coastal locations in the region is necessary to test whether these can be replicated in other areas.

A perspective on maritime security that brings together the geopolitics, fisheries and environment dimensions can help identify policy recommendations for small powers like the Philippines in navigating great power politics. These recommendations can help forge collaborative efforts within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), especially in light of the impasse on a code of conduct for the South China Sea. Such a perspective can also emphasize the need to tap minilateral arrangements that balance the sovereignty and human elements of maritime security.

Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby is an associate professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila, Philippines and a nonresident scholar at Carnegie China.


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