President Aquino’s Second Half: Minimum Credible Defense in Contested Waters?

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 13

Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

Following the Philippines 2013 General Election, President Benigno Aquino III’s position is strengthened for the second half of his single six-year term. On May 13, Filipino voters elected Aquino allies in nine of the twelve contested Senate seats, where his allies now control 13 of 24 seats in the upper chamber. Aquino’s Liberal Party remains the strongest bloc in the House of Representatives. With a strengthened political position, Aquino is better equipped to deal with several recent challenges to Philippine sovereignty by China. Very public instances, such as the Scarborough Shoal incident that began in April 2012, displayed how the Philippines is outmatched by Chinese maritime power. Reorienting the Philippine national security establishment toward external challenges and increasing its capacity to do so could turn out to be an important legacy of Aquino’s presidency. A further question that remains is the issue of whether legislative majorities boost President Aquino’s effort to contend with turbulence in the South China Sea that shows no signs of abating.

The China Challenge in Near Seas

In the year leading up to May’s election, Sino-Philippine relations went through a tumultuous period. In late January 2012 H.E. Ambassador Ma Keqing, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the People’s Republic of China presented her credentials to President Aquino. Since taking the post, the pace of incidents and difficulty in management of these disputes has not let up. The Scarborough Shoal, a triangle-shaped chain of reefs that falls within the Philippines 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea Treaty (UNCLOS), has been at the center of the tension over the past year. While many of the reefs are below the surface during high tide, their richness in marine resources attracts fisherman. In early April 2012 Philippine Navy surveillance aircraft spotted eight Chinese fishing boats anchored inside the shoal (Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 11, 2012).  Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario summoned Ambassador Ma to report illegally collected marine resources discovered by the boarding team from the Philippine Navy and the next day Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) vessels were stationed at the mouth of the shoal, preventing the Philippine Navy from arresting the offending Chinese fishermen. 

The pattern of Chinese behavior is worrisome for Manila. In past cases the growing Chinese presence has a way of becoming permanent. Filipino fishermen were surprised in early 1995 to discover China had built a structure on Mischief Reef and stationed armed vessels in the vicinity. The Chinese have yet again changed the status quo as their vessels currently have effective control of the Scarborough Shoal, denying Filipino fisherman access. After multiple rounds of talks following the earlier Mischief Reef incident, China and the Philippines came out with a Joint Statement in 1995 calling for the disputes to “be settled in a peaceful and friendly manner through consultations on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” In regards to the most recent series of disputes, however, President Aquino has chosen instead to press the issue over the course of the year.

Ambassador Ma sought to communicate China’s positions and concerns through government channels as well as though outreach events at academic institutions.

During a one-week stretch in November 2012 the Ambassador took her argument to two of the Philippines top universities for public events. Starting at De La Salle University, she refuted the characterization of China as an aggressive military power, stressing that its foreign policy is defensive in nature. She made the same argument at Ateneo De Manila University just days later, but also included an additional address to Ateneo’s Confucius Institute, which was established in 2006. In December, Ambassador Ma reiterated that China still sees joint development of contested areas as a viable solution to the disputes, but Secretary Del Rosario remained cool to the idea, stressing that investment would be welcome, but it would have to be governed by Philippine law (Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 7). While visiting Camp Aguinaldo to mark International Peacekeepers Day in late May, Ambassador Ma sought to speak with Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin informally during the visit. She conveyed China’s concern that the Philippines were creating additional structures on Ayungin Shoal, located just over 100 nautical miles from Palawan, well within the Philippines EEZ and internationally known as Second Thomas Shoal (The Philippine Star, May 30).

Contending with Chinese Power 

As the Scarborough Shoal crisis unfolded and the scope of it became clear, the Department of Foreign Affairs stated that it would approach the issue from three pillars politics, law, and defense (Philippine Daily Inquirer, April 29, 2012). On the political pillar, the Philippine objective to transform the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) into a “Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship and Cooperation” remained and Secretary Del Rosario argued the Chinese were in violation of the Declaration on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. During 2012, with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) under Cambodian chairmanship, the failure to issue a joint communiqué for the first time in 45 years left great concerns in Manila about maintaining regional unity on the issue of the South China Sea. The Philippines improves its position by working through multilateral channels and, with Myanmar consumed by its own internal challenges ahead of being the 2014 ASEAN Chair, it is essential to regain momentum on the issue during the 2013 meetings. Just days before the 22nd ASEAN Summit in late April, Sultan of Brunei Haji Hassanal Bolkiah made a state visit to the Philippines to discuss Brunei’s chairmanship of ASEAN. Bolstered by this meeting, President Aquino stressed the importance of territorial disputes at the summit in Brunei and emerged more positive about renewed ASEAN unity toward a code of conduct in the South China Sea (Manila Bulletin, April 26).

The legal pillar came to the forefront in January 2013 when the Philippines submitted their overlapping jurisdictional claims with China to the United Nations through a Notification and Statement of Claim. The submission challenges the Chinese nine-dash line as interfering with Philippine sovereignty within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (China Brief, February 1). The Philippines appointed the German judge Rudiger Wolfrum when it announced the arbitration in January and International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) President, the Japanese judge, Shunji Yanai named the Polish judge Stanislaw Pawlak to the 5-member arbitration panel (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 25). By its rejection of the process, China waived the right to name a representative to the panel. In late April, the ITLOS chief named Jean-Pierre Cot of France, Chris Pinto of Sri Lanka and Alfred Soons of The Netherlands to round out the arbitral tribunal (ABS-CBN, May 5).

China is adamantly opposed to the ITLOS proceedings. As an alternative they have sought to reinforce their argument of the need to settle territorial issues on a bilateral basis, stressing that outside intervention in these matters, including that of the Philippines treaty ally the United States, is not constructive. Just days after the appointment of Judge Pawlak, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs chose Dr. Ruan Zongze, Vice President of the China Institute of International Studies, to head a delegation on a study tour in the Philippines. While addressing the local media in Manila, Dr. Ruan argued that the U.S. would only go so far in supporting both the Philippines and Japan in their territorial issues with China, warning them not to overreach (Manila Bulletin, April 6). With his recent posting with the Chinese Embassy in Washington from July 2007 to December 2011, there was keen Philippine interest in his perspective on U.S. policy.

Minimum Credible Defense

Defense, the third pillar of the Philippines’ response , has received key attention over the past year and halfway through his term in office. In December 2012 the President signed Republic Act 10349, known as the revised Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Act. He stated that the additional funding will “boost the AFP’s capability upgrade program as it shifts from internal to external defense capability" (GMA News December 11, 2012).  An important part of that modernization is a shift in focus from smaller scale internal conflict involving primarily land forces, like that on the island of Mindanao, to maritime conflict between more robust forces. To complete the transition within its defense modernization program, these internal conflicts must first be resolved. In October 2012, the government moved closer to a lasting peace in Mindanao by completing a framework agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that sets a roadmap for a final agreement by 2016 (Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 15, 2012). The AFP has long been a ground-centric military contending with domestic threats. Its January 2011 Internal Peace and Security Plan (IPSP) reflects this past focus, but it directs the AFP to transition to a “territorial defense-focused force” in the second half of President Aquino’s term (IPSP Department of National Defense, January 1, 2011). During an address the Philippine Navy in May, he said the Philippines would acquire two new frigates, two helicopters capable of anti-submarine warfare, three fast vessels for coastal patrols and eight amphibious assault vehicles by 2017 (Agence France Presse, May 21). These are vital improvements for air and naval forces that were largely composed of obsolete OV-10 reconnaissance aircraft and refitted U.S. Coast Guard cutters. The Philippines also are looking abroad to bolster their international maritime cooperation. 

The Aquino Administration has sought to boost its capability through enhanced cooperation with partner countries such as Japan. In September 2011, the first Philippines-Japan Dialogue on Maritime and Oceanic Affairs was held in Tokyo where discussions on increasing the capacity of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) to confront the growing challenges in its maritime domain gained momentum. The approval for these ten 40-meter multi-role patrol vessels came through in December 2012, they are funded in Japan’s fiscal year 2013 budget, and Manila is scheduled to take delivery of them between February and August 2014 (Manila Standard, February 14). Ahead of Japan’s December 2012 election Secretary Del Rosario surprised many observers by declaring that Manila would welcome a rearmed Japan with a reinterpretation of its Pacifist Constitution. The second Philippines-Japan Maritime Dialogue was held this February in Manila, reinforcing the positive trajectory of the bilateral relationship under new Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (Philippine Daily Inquirer, December 11, 2012).

National Coast Watch System

Enhancing maritime domain awareness is a priority concern for the Aquino Administration. President Aquino signed Executive Order 57 in September 2011 establishing a National Coast Watch System (NCWS). There are over 20 coast watch stations, including the coast watch centers in Davao, Puerto Princesa, and Zamboanga at varying levels of functionality. The current vision is for an interagency effort, but that continues to confront significant bureaucratic challenges. Executive Order 57 calls for the National Coast Watch Center to be headed by the PCG. This center will “implement and coordinate maritime security operations” and be the centerpiece of the NCWS where it will “gather, consolidate, synthesize and disseminate information relevant to maritime security.” Realizing its vision, including desired cooperation with regional partners, will require sustained political support and funding. The NCWS has found important initial support from the U.S. through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA). With DTRA’s primary mission being to counter threats related to weapons of mass destruction, bolstering Philippine maritime domain awareness is done in an effort to stop trafficking of such weapons and dual-use materials. A February 2013 DTRA concept of operations workshop focused attention on addressing shortfalls in interagency communications to realize the National Coast Watch Center.

While working with DTRA has advanced the planning of the NCWS, the PCG has recently been dealing with the fallout of a fatal incident involving a Taiwanese fisherman. Shortly after the February 2013 workshop, the Department of National Defense released its Bid Bulletin for NCWS, with 90 percent of the 979 million Philippine Pesos ($23.69 million) bid on the first of five projects that focuses on maritime domain awareness requirements (The Philippine Star, February 21). The next concept of operations workshop with DTRA on the NCWS took place in May with a focus on operational planning and standard operating procedures. This engagement, however, was overshadowed by the incident of May 9th where PCG personnel fatally shot a Taiwanese fisherman suspected of fishing illegally. The initial indications from the National Bureau of Investigation report indicate negligence on the part of PCG personnel and the incident has led to a diplomatic row with Taiwan (The Philippine Star, May 25). While the development of the NCWS will continue, this incident could undermine the PCG in leading this interagency effort.


Since taking office in June 2010, President Aquino has stressed the need to reorient the national security establishment from internal security operations to territorial defense in a time of Chinese assertiveness in regional waters. The three pillars of law, politics, and defense laid out for the response to the Scarborough Shoal incident are all being pursued actively. Under Aquino’s leadership more Philippine resources, as well as security assistance from allies and partners, has gone to address such capability gaps for maritime security.  In 2013, under Brunei’s Chairmanship, the Philippines has helped bring renewed ASEAN unity toward a code of conduct in the South China Sea and with ITLOS appointing the three remaining members to the tribunal the legal process is moving ahead. The NCWS is a priority as indicated by Executive Order 57 and that effort should continue, despite the PCG’s tragic incident with the Taiwanese fisherman. With a strengthened position with legislative allies, President Aquino is well positioned to continue to shift Manila’s security focus toward territorial defense.