This article is part of Conceptualization of “Maritime Security” in Southeast Asia, a series of analyses produced by experts convened by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Maritime security in the Philippines’ national language

The national language of the Philippines is officially Filipino, but this is a mixture of predominant Tagalog language with words assimilated from Spanish, English, Cebuano, and other local languages. There are no precise Filipino words for “maritime security” but “kapanatagan sa karagatan” is used for a similar meaning.  “Kapanatagan” means security and “sa karagatan” means “at sea.” “Kapanatagan” is from the root word “panatag” which in turn means “peaceful.” This translation is modeled after the Philippine words for “national security” which translates into “kapanatagang pambansa” (literally, peace of the country) in the official Filipino version of the 1987 Constitution.1  The term “kapanatagan sa dagat” however is not used in official documents, which are always published in English. “Maritime security” is the accepted and well-used term, but usually in the context of governance and law enforcement, which indicates an overriding concern for national control of sea-based activities and more often connotes peace and order at sea.

The Philippines’ official definition for and usage of maritime security

The term “maritime security” was officially defined in the National Marine Policy issued on 8 November 1994. It is specifically defined as “a state in which the country’s marine assets, maritime practices, territorial integrity, and coastal peace and order are protected, conserved, preserved and enhanced.”2  The document has been long out of print, however; the text has been reproduced in a 1996 publication of the University of the Philippines Institute for International Legal Studies.3

The Philippines’ key documents for defining and understanding maritime security

Apart from the general definition stated in the 1994 National Marine Policy, maritime security can be understood in the present context through its treatment in the two principal documents that describe the Philippines’ national security interests. These are the National Security Policy4 and the National Security Strategy.5

The National Security Policy recognizes the Philippines’ extensive maritime interests as an archipelagic state and intends to “enhance cooperative maritime security and defense arrangements with other countries” in order to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.6 It expressly identifies “maritime and airspace security” as one of the 12-point national security agenda items to be pursued for 2017-2022, with a particular focus on “ensur[ing] safety of life and protection of trade and marine resources against piracy, poaching, illegal intrusion terrorism, and human and drug trafficking at sea.”7

The National Security Strategy further defines “national security” in a comprehensive manner, as “the state or condition wherein the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity the people’s well-being, core values, and way of life, and the State and its institutions, are protected and enhanced.”8 It reiterates “maritime and airspace security” as among the goals of the strategy, and enumerates the actions needed to achieve this as including the integrated management plans and operations of air and maritime domains, acquisition of equipment to provide nationwide 24/7 maritime domain awareness and enable effective management of Philippine air and maritime space, harmonization of agency plans and requirements relative to air and maritime security, establishment of comprehensive and integrated databases for planning and decision-making, and promotion of maritime domain awareness.9

Elements of the Philippines’ approach to maritime security: environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management, resource management (other than fisheries), counter-terrorism, law enforcement, naval operations, deterrence?

Given the comprehensive scope of its definition, and the fact that the Philippines as an archipelago has inherent and integral maritime interests in almost all aspects of its national life, the Philippine conceptualization of maritime security includes all of the above. In general terms, these interests and activities are encompassed by the elements of the definition of maritime security quoted above, with “marine assets” and “maritime practices” covering environmental protection, mariner safety, fisheries management and resource management; “territorial integrity” referring to naval operations and deterrence, and “coastal peace and order” addressing counter-terrorism and law enforcement. This expansive definition, however, exists only on a conceptual level; as shown in the subsequent section, actual practice does not exactly measure up to the theory.

Evolution in the Philippines’ usage of the term maritime security

The National Security Policy and National Security Strategy treats maritime security in a compartmentalized fashion. Although the country’s extensive maritime interests are recognized in both documents, “maritime security” is clearly used in a more limited context involving essentially monitoring and control of maritime activities to prevent specific undesired activities or threats. The way in which the National Security Policy makes maritime security one of the 12 points of the action agenda, but then focuses maritime security only on essentially territorial defense and maritime law enforcement, indicates that at present the practical application of the concept is not as comprehensive as the official definition would make it appear. The seeming dissonance between theory (the definition) and practice (the implementation) is likely due to the predominantly “land-based perspective” of policy-making: governance of social and economic activities tend to prioritize land-based planning and management; there is limited understanding of the range and value of activities at sea; private sector presence at sea has been dominated by fishing, inter-island/domestic maritime traffic, and occasional petroleum operations; and until very recently, the only operational presence at sea was the Philippine Navy. The coast guard and police had very limited assets and operationally stayed close to shore. Their presence only began expanding substantially after 2010 due to the enactment of a new Philippine Coast Guard Law10 and more resources being acquired by the Philippine Coast Guard or provided to the Philippine National Police Maritime Group. The discourse of governance of Philippine waters thus naturally tends to be dominated by law enforcement and security professionals.

Additional context for the Philippines

The Philippines is the second-largest archipelagic state in the world. It is located in a nexus of numerous competing maritime interests at domestic, regional, and global scales. On the domestic level, the fragmented islands connected by inter-island waters create a resource-rich marine environment that hosts competing and complementary resource use and exploitation activities.

Competition between local stakeholders is fierce, usually pitting poor marginalized coastal communities dependent on the sea for subsistence against rich commercial sectors, businesses, and elites seeking to exploit all kinds of marine resources and use of the marine waters. Since the region is dominated by developing States, economic policies and activities tend to be highly contested especially if there are the benefits are not evenly distributed and there are widening gaps between the rich and poor. These add to internal maritime security problems such as illegal fishing and drug trafficking by sea.

On the regional level, the archipelago is in the middle of the Southeast Asian region’s peninsular and insular areas, which host porous borders, deeply-rooted coastal settlements, and diverse maritime activities, relations, histories, and practices dating back to pre-colonial times. Post-colonial Southeast Asia is a fragmented, competitive, and heterogenous collection of lands and peoples, often with competing interests that have been exacerbated or amplified by colonial rule. Although the ASEAN collective represents an effort to unify and bring peace to these contentious peoples, there are still numerous historically rooted disputes between them that haven’t been settled by Westernization. The Philippines, for example, has a standing dispute with Malaysia over a portion of North Borneo; it also has competing maritime claims with Malaysia and Vietnam in the South China Sea. Nationalism tends to influence relations and cooperation negatively, raising a very cautious attitude at best or outright suspicion and hostility at worst. This usually hinders maritime cooperation, especially if one country tends to blame the other as the source of the problem. The tri-border area between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia remains one of the principal sources of common and persistent maritime security threats, from smuggling to terrorism, due to the obstacles created by nationalism.

On the global scale, the Philippines’ location at the crossroads of international maritime trade routes that converge and pass through the South China Sea and key straits like the Straits of Malacca, Lombok, and Makassar sets its maritime interests up either against or in favor of other countries. Its geographic location as a potential “gatekeeper,” with control over at least seven maritime “chokepoints” within its inter-island waters, and alongside the South China Sea, makes the country an object of contention and competition between great powers seeking to gain dominance of the South China Sea waterways. The Philippines historically served as the springboard for the United States’ rise to global power at the beginning of the 20th century by providing the latter with a base to access East Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Middle East. In the 21st century, it is a key member of the “peripheral States” that China needs to bring under its sphere of influence and control in order to realize its Two Island Chain Strategy and create a security buffer to its perceived vulnerable southern coasts. This adds a layer of geopolitical competition upon maritime security problems and proposed solutions.

About Jay Batongbacal

Jay L. Batongbacal is an associate professor at the University of the Philippines College of Law and director of the university’s Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea. He was a U.S.-ASEAN Fulbright Initiative Visiting Scholar in Washington, DC, in 2014-2015, assisted the Philippines in pursuing its claim to a continental shelf beyond 200 nautical miles in the Benham Rise Region, and is listed as one of the UNESCO/IOC experts for special arbitration under UNCLOS Annex VIII.