As an archipelagic nation, the Philippines has unique experiences that shape how it manages its maritime domain. With internal and external maritime threats continuing to evolve and escalate in the region, the Philippines’ conceptualization and approach to maritime security must advance to meet the issues of the time and beyond.

Maritime Security: Policies and On the Ground Realities

The understanding of maritime security in the Philippines is guided by several key documents: the 1994 National Maritime Policy (NMP), the National Security Policy (NSP), and the National Security Strategy (NSS). The NMP recognizes the country as an archipelagic nation and details the importance of protecting, conserving, and managing its marine resources and environment. Yet, almost thirty years later, the NMP remains unchanged and is now outdated in the current context, with no move from the government to update the policy. Instead, the current approach to maritime security has been anchored on the NSP, which recognizes the country’s extensive maritime interests and the importance of protecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The NSS further reiterates this approach by highlighting “maritime security” as one of the areas that need more focus, especially in developing maritime capacity and capabilities among relevant agencies.

These strategic documents aim to guide and expand the country’s approach to maritime issues into a more comprehensive policy. However, despite this intention, maritime policy is still highly cloistered. Both the NSS and NSP are geared toward maritime law enforcement and territorial defense, with less focus on issues of non-traditional security. Furthermore, there is little recognition of the country as a maritime nation demonstrated by policy-makers who continue to hold on to a “land-based perspective” to plan and manage the country’s maritime domain.

With more than 7,600 islands, the Philippines faces a large array of maritime threats. A forthcoming study conducted by The Asia Foundation and Amador Research Services identified seven pressing maritime threats that plague the country: illegal fishing, terrorism, piracy, smuggling, human trafficking, marine pollution and environment degradation, and incursions. These transnational crimes are a result of several causes including poverty and, most acutely, fragmented maritime governance. The latter is seen when maritime law enforcement agencies encounter overlaps in the roles, functions, and to some extent mandates which lead to complications during operations.

In addition to its domestic constraints, the Philippines faces several regional challenges. First, it faces competing maritime claims in the South China Sea and delimitation settlements with Southeast Asian states. A second, more urgent, challenge is the heightening tensions within the South China Sea that have provoked responses from concerned international groupings such as the Quad and the EU.

Philippine Government Priorities: Policy Pronouncements

Facing a dynamic regional landscape, the foreign policy approach of the head of state is vital in steering the country’s maritime priorities. Despite the landmark 2016 Arbitral Award, former President Rodrigo Duterte chose to “set aside” the ruling and pursue an “independent foreign policy” for economic gains with Beijing.

While Duterte was more tolerant of China, the Philippine bureaucracy, chiefly the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) placed the Award at the forefront. This was seen within the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism and in statements by defense and military agencies, where agreement on the importance of the Award and international law was cited as a basis for cooperation to increase defense capabilities and improve security arrangements. With no significant gains and China’s continued incursions, Duterte adopted a firmer stance during the General Assembly’s 75th session and admitted the only way to protect the country’s exclusive economic zone is by the use of force. This development continued until the end of his term, even mentioning in his final months that no Philippine president had the right to give up the country’s claims in the South China Sea.

In contrast to his predecessor, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has placed Philippine claims in the South China Sea at the center of his foreign policy. The Marcos administration explicitly stated that the Philippines will not concede its claims in the South China Sea, and has employed the Arbitral Award to advance its position and bring international attention to the issue by filing diplomatic protests. This has been supplemented by the Philippine Coast Guard’s move to publicize Chinese aggression and efforts to bolster security ties with like-minded states through new EDCA sites and joint patrols.

South China Sea: Top Concern on the National Security Survey

The 2022 National Security Survey conducted by Amador Research Services and the Foundation of the National Interest revealed that one of the most pressing national security issues among the Philippine policy community is the encroachments by China in the South China Sea.

The survey also perceived that issues on non-traditional security were pressing concerns. The South China Sea is not only an issue of territorial disputes, but also encompasses transnational crime and non-traditional security issues of food security and environmental degradation.

For the Philippines to tackle these issues and accomplish its maritime priorities, the government must improve its existing instruments and policies essential to national security. More than 50 percent of survey respondents had a neutral, unsatisfactory, or very unsatisfactory perspective on the government’s handling of national security issues, including but not limited to the cohesion of national security planning process, inter-agency intelligence coordination, ability of the security sector to attract talent, and the sufficiency of networking and dialogue between the private sector, government, and academia on national security issues.

Correspondingly, while the government needs to enhance and harmonize processes, reaching out to defense and security partners is also imperative. A majority of survey respondents maintained that the Philippines must engage with all countries but preferred to engage with the Quad and AUKUS in the belief that it would improve national security. The EU was also a preferred partner, with a slim majority presuming that it would help manage tensions in the South China Sea. ASEAN, Japan, EU, and Australia were also among the top partners for non-traditional security issues such as blue economy, environmental protection, and climate change.

Advancing Philippine Maritime Interests

As the Marcos administration is firm on its South China Sea claims, further promotion and support are needed to push and implement the Arbitral Award. The passage of the Maritime Zone Bill will establish the maritime zones of the Philippines under its jurisdiction, provide sovereign rights under this maritime zone, and empower its security sector to uphold the national interest.

While external defense and traditional concerns are paramount to the country’s national security, so too are non-traditional security issues. Hence, it is essential for the Philippines to adopt a blue economy approach. Despite its rich maritime resources, the country’s blue economy only accounted for 3.6 percent of the state’s GDP in 2021. Adopting this approach will enable sustainable management and use of resources, manage risks, utilize opportunities to leverage the marine economy for rapid and inclusive growth, and ultimately aid in strengthening national security.

The Philippines must also adopt a whole-of-government strategy to align relevant maritime agencies’ roles and mandates and encourage seamless inter-agency cooperation. Further enhancement to the administration’s coordination efforts is necessary to execute its maritime efforts. The Philippine administration just launched the Maritime Industry Development Plan 2028 which urges all concerned agencies to pursue a whole-of-government approach to enhance growth and development in the maritime sector. Thus, leaders from all relevant stakeholders are expected to conduct further training and improve strategies to ensure such efforts are made.

Lastly, the country should procure assistance from partner states to support its maritime priorities. The visit of Vice President Kamala Harris expanded U.S. efforts through several initiatives to strengthen maritime cooperation in Southeast Asia. Moreover, other external actors, such as the Quad and the EU, have expressed interest in supporting maritime efforts in the region and have launched their respective maritime cooperation initiatives and strategies. The Philippines must take advantage of these interests to further develop its maritime capacity and capability.

Overall, the Philippines must realize that to ensure the development and integrity of its maritime domain, it requires a multi-faceted approach. A government that presents a firm stance on protecting the country’s maritime entitlements, outlines a sound strategic policy to guide efforts and coordination among agencies, and gathers support from like-minded states in terms of security and defense capabilities will ensure the country’s maritime interests will remain intact in the future.

About Lisa Marie Palma

Lisa Marie Palma is the Project Assistant for FACTS Asia, Inc., a platform that hosts expert analysis on foreign and public policies based in the Philippines.

About Maria Gabriela Alano

Maria Gabriela Alano is a research associate at Amador Research Services.