On June 24, 2021, Benigno S. Aquino III, the 15th President of the Philippines, passed away due to renal disease secondary to diabetes. In power from 2010 to 2016, President Aquino’s foreign policy will likely be best remembered for the South China Sea (SCS) arbitration. Initiated after the Philippines effectively lost control of Scarborough Shoal to China, the arbitration case was the Aquino administration’s key initiative with respect to the SCS dispute. Shortly thereafter, China seized more features in the Philippine-claimed Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) and turned them into artificial islands where Beijing established military facilities. By doing so, China sought to alter the status quo in the SCS as the legal proceedings were underway. The arbitral tribunal eventually ruled that “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line.” The decision was issued on July 12, 2016, a few days after Mr. Aquino left office.
While Manila’s SCS legal victory will figure highly in the late chief executive’s legacy, it is critical to underscore that the Aquino administration pursued two important—although less prominent—foreign policy initiatives which aimed to strengthen national security: the revitalization of the military capability build-up program, and the establishment and enhancement of Philippine security relations with key like-minded countries.
In the aftermath of the Scarborough Shoal incident, President Aquino signed into law Republic Act No. 10349, which established the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization Program (RAFPMP). Extending the original AFPMP for another fifteen years, the modernization program is divided into three five-year “horizons.” Under the first horizon (2013-2017), the Philippines acquired, among others, 12 FA-50 lead in fighter trainer jets from South Korea, 3 Hamilton-class cutters from the U.S., and 2 strategic sealift vessels from Indonesia. Cognizant of the regional security environment, the Aquino administration sought to shift the focus of the AFP from internal security operations to external defense.
The Aquino administration also moved to strengthen security relations with like-minded countries. Mr. Aquino’s government negotiated and signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the U.S., the Philippine sole formal treaty ally. In furtherance of the Mutual Defense Agreement (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the EDCA aims to, inter alia, provide increased rotational presence to the U.S. forces in the Philippines, particularly in “agreed locations.” In early 2016, shortly before Mr. Aquino left office and after the Philippine Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of EDCA, the allies identified the initial five agreed locations: Antonio Bautista Air Base in Puerto in Princesa, Palawan; Lumbia Air Base in Cagayan de Oro; Basa Air Base in Floridablanca, Pampanga; Fort Magsaysay in Nueva Ecija; and Mactan-Benito Ebuen Air Base in Cebu.
Apart from strengthening the Philippines-U.S. Alliance, Mr. Aquino’s government also sought to expand security relations with Japan, Viet Nam, and Australia. Although the Philippines-Japan Strategic Partnership was initially established in 2009 during the Arroyo administration, the Aquino government clearly enhanced the relationship and oriented the same towards security. Under President Aquino, the Philippines and Japan issued two key strategic partnership declarations in 2011 and 2015. The latter even included an action plan. The two declarations identified various traditional and non-traditional security challenges, such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, terrorism, and natural disasters. Arguably, however, it is the shared concern over China’s rise and increasing assertiveness in the East and South China Seas that appear prominent in the two documents.
To operationalize their shared concerns over China’s maritime assertiveness, the Philippines and Japan prioritized the transfer of defense equipment and technology in their strategic partnership. Indeed, in February 2016, the two countries signed an Agreement on the “Transfer of Defense Equipment and Technology” (ATDET) to formalize this initiative. A month after ATDET was signed, President Aquino announced that Manila would lease five Beechcraft TC-90 King Air Advance Trainer Aircraft “to assist [the Philippine Navy] in patrolling [the country’s] territories particularly in the West Philippine Sea.” In 2013, it was announced that the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) would acquire 10 Multi-Role Response Vessels (MRRVs) from Tokyo through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), with the aim of enhancing Manila’s capability to patrol its large coasts and further strengthening maritime law enforcement functions. In May 2016, the PCG acquired the first of the MRRVs in a launching and naming ceremony held in Japan.
Notwithstanding overlapping territorial and maritime claims in the Spratlys, the Aquino administration also established a strategic partnership with Viet Nam. In the 2015 Strategic Partnership Declaration, Manila and Hanoi reaffirmed their commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes and “to ensure maritime security and safety, and freedom of navigation in and overflight above the [SCS]…in accordance with universally-recognized principles of international law, including the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Even before the formal establishment of the Philippines-Viet Nam strategic partnership, the Aquino administration signed agreements to strengthen security cooperation and confidence building, particularly in the areas of defense, information sharing, establishment of hotlines, as well as military personnel interaction in Southwest Cay Island and the Northeast Cay Island.
Built on a long history of security cooperation, the Philippines-Australia Comprehensive Partnership, established in 2015, reaffirmed the “importance of ensuring security, safety and freedom of navigation and overflight at all times in accordance with international law.” The two countries also called on “all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from unilateral actions that could increase tensions in the region.” Prior to the formal establishment of the comprehensive partnership, the Aquino administration oversaw the Philippine Senate’s concurrence with the Philippines-Australia Visiting Forces Agreement in 2012.
Overall, the security partnerships established/strengthened by the Aquino administration with Japan, Viet Nam, and Australia also serve two other strategic purposes: support the current international order, and enhance existing multilateral security architecture.
The strategic/comprehensive partnership declarations allude to the need to uphold the regional order underpinned by the U.S., the preeminent power of the Asia-Pacific since the end of World War II. The Philippines and its partners have expressed concern over China’s actions in the SCS, particularly when viewed from the context of geostrategic rivalry. Clearly, there is similarity of interest among the Philippines, Japan, Viet Nam, and Australia. Interestingly, the security partners chosen by the Philippines are also part of the U.S. network of security relationships. During the Aquino administration, Japan, Viet Nam, and Australia participated in the Philippines-U.S. Balikatan exercises as observers. Australia became an actual participant when its VFA with the Philippines took effect. As such, the Aquino administration’s efforts to expand Manila’s security relations maybe its attempt to link the spokes in the aforementioned U.S.-led hub-and-spokes system of alliances and partnerships. Manila also used the strategic partnerships to elicit diplomatic support for the legal action it took against China, its modest effort in supporting the status-quo order.
The strategic/comprehensive partnerships are also aimed to support and enhance existing multilateral architecture, particularly with respect to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite the weakness of the organization, the Philippines supports ASEAN and its role in the broader region because before and during the Aquino administration—and arguably for the foreseeable future—there is no actor that could fill the role that ASEAN plays. Hence, obtaining reaffirmation for ASEAN centrality is a needed diplomatic support for a small power like the Philippines, especially as it faces uncertainties in the regional security environment.
President Aquino’s foreign policy was far from perfect. Indeed, some of his administration’s actions in the realm of foreign affairs and national defense could have been seriously reconsidered. Nevertheless, his administration’s efforts to expand and bolster the country’s security relations, as well as to revitalize the military modernization program, are important long-term initiatives that the Philippines need in order to navigate the complex geostrategic environment underpinned by major power competition. The future of the these initiatives are by no means a foregone conclusion. I have argued elsewhere about the perils of undoing some of the elements of these foreign policy actions. As such, for a developing country like the Philippines, the old adage that “domestic politics should stop at water’s edge” remains very much relevant.
*Mico A. Galang is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Santo Tomas (Manila, Philippines). The views expressed are the author’s alone.