Philippine shift to territorial defense downplays reality of internal security challenges

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Philippine shift to territorial defense downplays reality of internal security challenges Philippine Coast Guard personnel aboard the Gabriela Silang salute during a passing honor ceremony at the conclusion of a joint search-and-rescue exercise between the Philippine and U.S. coast guards in the South China Sea off Zambales, Sept. 3, 2022.
Ted Aljibe/AFP

Gunmen killed four police officers last week in a roadside ambush targeting the governor of Lanao del Sur, a province in the southern Philippines.

The attack came as the Philippine Army began to reorient itself towards external security (read China) and as Manila expanded maritime defense ties with the United States and Japan. The incident was a potent reminder that the Southeast Asian country’s most serious threats still come from within.

That’s just not where the money is these days, as deepened ties with Washington and Tokyo make clear.

Shifting toward territorial defense 

After six years of recklessness by President Rodrigo Duterte, the Marcos administration in early February firmly restored a longtime traditional alliance by giving U.S. forces access to four more Philippine bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

A week later, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. traveled to Tokyo where he inked a number of security agreements with Japan

These include the first Japanese defense grant as well as a potential visiting forces agreement that would allow Japanese Self Defense forces to conduct bilateral and multilateral training alongside their Philippine counterparts. Japan will continue to prioritize the Philippines, along with Vietnam, as a priority for its defense assistance programs.

The Armed Forces of the Philippines has focused its very limited acquisitions budget on external defense, including Brahmos anti-ship missiles, new long-range 155 mm self-propelled guns, and new multi-launch rocket systems. The Philippines is a long way from having sufficient military capabilities that could deter China. 

“We are now transitioning from an internal security operations focus to territorial defense,” Philippine Army commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. told Benar News. “If any invaders come near the land of the Philippines or inland, your [army] is ready to defend the nation. It’s really reorganizing our organization and training our troops to address external threats.”

For the United States, the logic is clear: you cannot defend Taiwan without the Philippines. So three of the four new EDCA facilities, which allow for the forward deployment of equipment, are expected to be in Luzon. 

Bombs scatter dust, black smoke and debris in the southern Philippine city of Marawi as government planes bombard Muslim militant positions, June 1, 2017. [Mark Navales/BenarNews]

Yet the rush towards territorial defense ignores an important fact: The Philippines’ domestic security remains tenuous.

The peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is now in the fourth year, and it is making many strides in terms of governance and passing laws.

On the positive side, when there have been breakdowns in the peace process, when three soldiers and seven MILF members were killed in Basilan last November, the ceasefire mechanism was in place and the situation did not escalate.

Key pieces of legislation have been passed in the past year. Despite some blowback about extending the term of the Bangsamoro Transitional Authority, it blew over very quickly and there has been no widespread dissent. 

Nonetheless, their decommissioning of men and weapons has slowed. The post-pandemic recession has meant that the southern region has fewer resources. In short, without a significant peace dividend, many former MILF combatants are joining other militant groups, including the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and Maute Group. 

While the Philippine military has shown off some 174 defections in 2022, the Abu Sayyaf Group still has not been brought to heel. They may be taking more losses in the past, but kinship ties, poverty, and Tausig culture guarantee a stream of new recruits.   

Although there is much less ungoverned space than in the past, there is plenty of poorly governed space that will continue to draw foreign terrorist fighters from neighboring states, as pro-Islamic State groups rebuild and Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda, finds itself back in the crosshairs of Indonesia’s security forces.

The Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army, meanwhile have not laid down their arms, despite the occasional surrender or the death of their founder, Jose Maria Sison. They may be down from a peak of 20,000 fighters to only 2,000, but with endemic poverty, landlessness, and no meaningful peace process, the communist rebels remain a fact of political life.

Why now?

After the U.S. Navy withdrew from Subic Bay, China began threatening the Philippines in 1993 when it seized Mischief Reef and started to build on the territory in the South China Sea. 

China built and militarized six artificial islands and, in 2012, it seized Scarborough Shoal. China continues to harass Philippine fishermen and coast guard ships, and even deploys military-grade lasers to drive away Philippine vessels. 

Although the Philippine internal security situation has improved, it hasn’t improved markedly in 22 years of sustained assistance and training from the United States. In that time, the Philippines received more than U.S. $2 billion in security assistance.

This is the same military that less than six years ago needed five months to retake a city held by a few hundred militants and was dependent on the United States, Singapore and Australia for its intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities. 

So why the outward focus now?

First, the alliance with the United States was nearly irretrievably damaged during Duterte’s six-year presidency (2016-22). While in office, he announced his intentions to end the alliance and abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement. He simultaneously coddled up to China, which delivered only 3% of the $24 billion in promised Belt and Road projects and foreign investment. 

The Biden administration made the restoration of alliances and partnerships a cornerstone of its foreign policy. The U.S. Department of Defense has seized on this, as has the Marcos administration. 

Second, while the Philippines has questioned whether the United States would live up to its Article 5 obligations under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, there was also the question of whether Manila could fulfill its Article 4 obligations to maintain a capable force that could assist the United States.

Third, the money on offer is significant, which really matters for the Philippines. When the United States negotiated access to the five military facilities originally framed under the EDCA, it pledged $82 million to build up AFP facilities; a similar amount will likely go to the four new EDCA facilities. 

In sum, focusing on external security opens up new lines of funding from both the United States and Japan, and ties them to Philippine security.  

Yet it doesn’t solve the ongoing internal security threats. The Philippine Army trains when the United States pays for them to train. Deepened ties with Japan would again focus on external defense; the Japanese Self Defense Force has no experience in dealing with internal security threats or counter insurgency. 

Perhaps that’s not a bad thing: the Philippines has to take ownership of its own security. And its constant dependency on external support for its counter-terrorism has only created moral hazard. 

But while the external reorientations and improved ties with the United States and Japan are important, in the face of an aggressive challenge from China, the real threat to Philippine security comes from a host of internal challenges that it is unable or unwilling to resolve.

And that reality matters to its neighbors because Philippine internal security is a regional security concern. 

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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