The Philippines’ Search for Strategic Partners
Image Credit: Wikicommons

The Philippines’ Search for Strategic Partners


Tensions are growing in East Asia, driven in large part by the continued rise of China and its bid for regional primacy. In particular, Beijing’s claims to “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea – and its efforts to enforce those claims – have created concerns as to exactly what kind of power it wants to wield. China’s territorial dispute with the Philippines has been one of the most vehement, with the smaller country challenging Beijing’s sweeping territorial and maritime claims, popularly known as the nine-dashed line.

While Manila has brought its case before an Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, it is pursuing other avenues to defend its interests. The Philippines has initiated strategic partnerships with Japan and Australia that seek to elevate bilateral ties that prioritize security cooperation. These partnerships are comprehensive: economic, political, and socio-cultural. With the elevation of bilateral relations to a strategic level, Manila expects closer cooperation especially in military and maritime matters.

These initiatives indicate the willingness of the Philippines to expand its current bilateral and multilateral relations and deepen its ties with like-minded states, although date, only Japan has agreed to a partnership. The Philippines seeks to complement its multilateral relations in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its mutual defense treaty with the U.S. with other robust bilateral cooperation to enhance its position in East Asia.


The Philippines-Japan strategic partnership originally began as an enhanced economic relationship. Having signed the Philippines-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement, the two countries decided that fostering a strategic partnership should be among their shared policy objectives.

In 2011, the Strategic Partnership was formalized through a joint statement issued by President Benigno S. Aquino III and then Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Their statement alluded to shared basic values such as freedom, democracy, fundamental human rights and the rule of law as the main bases for the enhanced level of relations. A common strategic interest in protecting the sea lines of communication of the two maritime countries was also identified as a foundation of the enhanced relationship.

Manila became the first official overseas destination of Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida when he visited Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario on January 9, 2013 to discuss shared regional concerns and bilateral activities.  At their subsequent meeting in Tokyo, Del Rosario and Kishida agreed that Japan will provide the Philippine Coast Guard with several patrol boats.  At $11 million per boat, the transfer will be funded by Japan’s official development assistance to the Philippines and will be completed in a span of 18 months.  The boats are expected to help the Philippines patrol its vast coastline and improve maritime domain awareness.

Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera visited the Philippines at the end of June 2013 to confer with his Filipino counterpart, Voltaire Gazmin. The two officials vowed to work together closely to ensure that the rule of law prevails in the settlement of the territorial disputes.  Japan also has a territorial dispute with China in the East China Sea over islets it calls Senkaku Islands (and which China calls the Diaoyu Islands). The Philippines and Japan also agreed to work together to help the United States maximize its rebalance to the Asia Pacific. In addition, Manila expressed a willingness to provide Japanese maritime vessels with access to some of its naval bases, alongside the United States.

July 29, 2013 at 15:39

And small countries can defeat big bullies if they have the heart and will to fight. Just ask big bully china how many times they ran back home with tails between legs from defeats by little Vietnam for the last few thousands years. Or how Japan, England, Manchuria, and Mongolia humilated china even they were tiny in size comparing to china.

July 28, 2013 at 23:13

Sorry Vic, 

actually the Marcos is looking for something like Singapores. Both he and Ninoy Aquino (Pres. Father) admired Singapores form of Government.

July 28, 2013 at 01:13

Also, the Philippines should not forget and further develop its historically close ties with Indonesia—the only southeast Asian country that China fears.

July 28, 2013 at 00:14

As I said it refers to factory workers wherein Unions are active and are being controled by the CPP (Communist Party of the Philippines). It is because of our law's that makes us unattractive, it is pro-labor . Also, our wages aren't cheap compared to other countries. 

Foreign companies could also only own 40% here in the Philippines due to the limitations of our Constitution ( a blowback from the Parity Rights).

July 26, 2013 at 21:11

Well, the reality is that there is no such thing as an "equal footing".  As a PLA general put it bluntly, there are big countries and there are small countries, and that is reality.

July 26, 2013 at 16:17

One more thing I forgot to add: the recent passage of the long-overdue Reproductive Health Bill last December is a milestone moment, reining in population growth to allow economic growth to catch up.

As a parting remark, let me put forward a pet-theory of mine: I'm in no position to judge Arroyo's presidency, but I'm of the opinion that the corruption scandals that plagued her administration, however destabilizing they were back then, were a blessing in disguise: it revealed to the current generation just how unsustainable the old system was and served as a wake-up call, which lead to the shift in mindset that I mentioned above. If you would forgive the crude analogy, it's like how you know it's time to take the trash out when it starts to stink up the place.

July 26, 2013 at 15:24

As a Filipino I find this article profoundly embarrasing. To put it bluntly, the reason we have to resort to diplomacy and beg for help from our partners is because we lack any real defensive capability, plain and simple. I sure hope that our leaders will eventually realize that we can't rely on the Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington forever, or on assistance from Japan or Australia or other countries for that matter. Soft power and a chauvinistic sense of nationalistic pride will ultimately mean nothing in a constantly changing world if we don't have the hard power to back it up, and a strong economy to afford it.

I don't mean to sound like a complainer, though; things are starting to turn around, as aquanut pointed out. For one thing, our economy is showing dramatic signs of recovery after decades of stagnation, and faith in government has been restored - their effects may not be immediately apparent, but it's a good start. More importantly, there is a growing consensus - particularly among youths - that corrupt practices should be frowned upon, whereas in decades past they were merely accepted as the norm.

Bill Hart
July 26, 2013 at 14:00

Dewey, you have the vision lacking in our alleged leaders. Having lived 8+ years in China and having only visited but worked with dozens of hard working Pinoy, I can only echo your comments. Philippines are beset with the misfortune of gov’ts that exploit the natively industrious nature of their people. They also have the equal challange of confronting mother nature at her harshest, bearing the asault of a dozen plus typhoons annually, in a densely populated, too often ill-housed nation.
Now Resident in Thailand but about to go back to work in China, it’s a constant love/hate affair. But Asia is where the world is centered in this century & I’m glad I’m part of it.

July 26, 2013 at 11:52

Do I sense envy or jealousness over Philippine's recent increased status of gaining credibility, co-operative deals and respect worldwide?  Why is it that one main party in particular is being such a stinker?  Why can't we be a little less aggressive/militant, a little more humble and come to the table on equal footing, without illegitimate absolutist preconditions of indisputable sovereignty over the areas in dispute?

July 26, 2013 at 08:36

Simply not an accurate presentation of the facts.  The Aquino-del Rosario-Cuisia leadership, regardless of one's opinions of politics, is actually achieving significant headway on the international stage – perhaps gaining more credibility and forging new, diverse relations for Philippines than ever before in history.  That's a positive thing, not a negative.  Give credit where credit due.  Yet, if PRC's current leadership can't realize that and also establish improved relations and even agree to disagree, then that is unfortunate and will hopefully pass in due time.

However, it's this 'unilateral overarching' overstep in the SCS you mention, which in fact creates counter-productive blowback (or a boomerang effect) in the form of resolute dimplomatic resistance to PRCGov's recent hegemonic policy.  Of course there will be push-back to any perceived imperialism increasingly dictating to Philippines, or subjecting them with intimidation techniques until they acquiesce.  

That is not an example of positive 'Influence' in SCS, please; it is unacceptable and smelling like imperialism in the modern day.  It is not a means to gain trust.  Trust must be Earned, not commanded by the size of one's Navy.  

Furthermore, this disagreement/dispute is not about a 'western' position, vs an 'Eastern' view, please.  Nonsense, don't try and play those deceptive cards..  It's purely about any responsible government defending one's sovereign right to be represented in fair and equitable position at the dispute-resolution table, when instead one is being intimidated with unjustified and unprecedented physical threats.  Such arrogance and hypocrisy will not gain trust or obedience, I'm sorry.  It's the 21st century; let's drop the illegitimate 'might is right' stance via absolutist 'indisputable sovereignty' claims and drop the intimidation.  That will only beget counter-balancing resistance.

July 26, 2013 at 02:14

The "nine-dashed line" foreign policy of China will prove to be counter-productive. It will not lead to China being able to access the resources the region may hold, it's antagonizing its neighbors, and it's providing further justification to defense & trade hawks in Japan & the US. It's already lead to increasing military ties between the PH, JA and the US — and those ties will only grow as the AFP rebuilds, the JSDF spreads its wings, and the US "pivots".

Dewey Last
July 25, 2013 at 13:00

@ All

Here in Los Angeles there are hundreds of thousands of first-generation Filipinos with college degrees. I have personal friends working at Lockheed and defense industries, veterinarians, doctors and many doctors who work as nurses. The Philippine people has surpassed the Japanese in the United States in income, which I find remarkable. Without a doubt the gain of such talented people has helped the economy and immigrants such as these are what make the US so unique in the world. And then there is the Philippines. The loss of such talent can be described as the byproduct of criminal enterprise.

I find my Filipino friends to be honorable and strongly religious. Many are not corruptible. I have one friend who works for the IRS and has made the boardroom of major corporations quake in their boots. The person turned down seven -figure jobs and briefcase filled with cash. Corruption is everywhere; just the magnitude is greater in the US.

Nation-building is a daunting task. There are just too many factors to take into account for a government to regulate or promote. What is needed is a national movement, a way in which the people of the country can actually do something. In May I vacationed in Japan to the central mountain region. In the 1950's a hydroelectric project was built by nearly a half a million workers. The project captured the imagination of the people and once built the pride of workmanship carried forward to every corner of the country. The Panama Canal, the Hoover Dam and projects like these can galvanize the people of a country. Something so achievable such as a national agenda of literacy can have the same stimulating effect. A country needs goals of great magnitude to energize the people. 

Without such a movement the Philippines will keep losing their best and brightest. Does the government even care they leave? The compunction to leave is not only based on having a higher standard of living overseas.  There is a lack of hope for the country they love. Give your youth hope and they will stay to help the country. Not to have the policies and conviction is the greatest evil of the current and past governments.  

July 25, 2013 at 11:57

Did you know that Marcos sent his men to Taiwan to copy the system of the KMT?  Marcos notices the KMT monopolies, which he copied.  Marcos believed that he had to amass capital to create a dictatorship similar to the KMT for economic development.  The problem was, Marcos' men were much more corrupt than the KMT.  Towards the end, the KMT noticed that Marcos' power was waning, and cooperation slowly waned.

July 25, 2013 at 10:35

@Errol  Well, the Chinese TV talk shows are mentioning time horizons of 10 – 20 years.  China is in no hurry, it does things with perseverance.  Just look at the space program.  It does things surly and truly.  China is a marathon runner.

July 25, 2013 at 10:13

@Errol        China, as a developing economy, will want to change the international rules.  It is reluctantly accepting the current Western domination of world institutions.  I cannot see the logic of the Philippines going for UNCLOS when the US, its perceived staunch ally, is not a signatory.  There will be no "meeting of the minds" between China and the Philippines as long as the Aquino-del Rosario-Cuisia clique is in power.  These are Filipino personalities whose personal dispositions are not conducive to Chinese overarching influence in the SCS.  China has stated many times, they are open to joint exploration talks.

Dewey Last
July 25, 2013 at 09:55

Can you say Marcos and corrupt without rolling your eyes?

Just a joke.

July 25, 2013 at 09:47


Comparing China and the Philippines, there are at least two major differences in the labor situation:

1.  Filipino laborers may go for long holidays when they got money in their pockets. They would spend the lot before coming back to work.  How many factory owners have complained about trying to meet shipping deadlines during holiday seasons?  In China, workers want to work, they want overtime, they want to work and save.  

2.  Despite what many may think, the CPC does not look kindly on strikes.  Their agents would like to nip it in the bud to prevent strikes.  The government knows how damaging it is on production.  In the Philippines, you have labor leaders who want strikes to get owners to fork out money not so much to the workers but to themselves.  

Multinationals like "chopstick" countries for perceived manual dexterity and their positive attitude to work.  Thailand is preferable to Malaysia and Indonesia.  And Indonesia, despite many limitations, beckons to multinationals because of its huge potential. 

Sadly, Philippines is the lowest on the totem pole.  Filipinos have a twisted logic about their ability to speak English as a drawing card.  The reality is the English language may be a necessary condition to engage multinational, but it is not a sufficient condition for economic development.

July 25, 2013 at 09:47

To harass a country like Philipines and China is looking for soft power?

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief