November’s Typhoon Haiyan (known in the Philippines as Typhoon Yolanda) tragically killed thousands of Filipinos and brought extreme hardship to hundreds of thousands more. It also wiped away any veneer from the country’s military, revealing the Philippines, a country of almost 100 million people, to be without any meaningful self-defense capabilities. This may not be news to the government of China, whose recent claims on the near-entirety of the South China Sea have placed it in an escalating dispute with the Philippines and its neighbors, but Beijing is undoubtedly making note of the sheer scale of the Philippines’ feebleness.
The day before the typhoon struck on November 8, Philippine president Benigno Aquino III sent his ministers of defense and interior to Leyte Island, which was to bear the brunt of the storm. But for crucial hours after the storm, according to reports in multiple national newspapers, neither of the two ministers could communicate with the president’s office because they were wholly reliant on cell phone communications, which had been knocked out by the typhoon. The lack of more resilient communications such as satellite phones and weather-safe radios extended beyond the Philippine military and interior department; the country’s disaster relief agency acknowledged that it did not have a single satellite phone, and was largely without communications in critical areas for days after the storm.
In the immediate aftermath of the typhoon, as its devastation became more apparent by the hour, the U.S. mobilized an entire aircraft carrier strike force of more than 5,000 sailors along with five KC-130 aircraft to provide relief supplies and transport injured victims. Other nations, including Japan, Australia, Taiwan, and Singapore soon followed suit. (Eleven days after the typhoon, following sharp international and domestic criticism, China offered to send a hospital ship and medical personnel.)
Remarkably, the two lead ships of the Philippine navy were inactive during the critical week following the typhoon. The Gregorio del Pilar and the Ramon Alcaraz, two 1960s-era former U.S. Hamilton-class coastguard cutters transferred to the Philippine navy in the past two years, were moored at Subic Bay in the northern part of the country, the site of a former U.S. naval base. (See photos taken November 13th, five days after the typhoon, showing no deployment loading of the ships.)
Not until November 14th, six days after the typhoon struck, did one of the ships, the Ramon Alcaraz, leave port – not to hurry toward hard-hit Leyte and Samar islands in the country’s Visayan region, but to sail to Manila, for a brief christening ceremony on November 22 that had been postponed from October, when the ship was already operational. The Ramon Alcaraz finally anchored near the devastated town of Tacloban, Leyte Island, on November 24. It carried 200 tons of relief supplies and equipment, but this was sixteen days after the typhoon had struck.
The sister ship Gregorio del Pilar remained tranquilly docked at its Subic pier until November 15, arriving at Tacloban on the 17th, nine days after the typhoon, according to a Navy spokesperson. The Gregorio del Pilar carried no additional relief supplies or equipment. When asked why, as dozens of vessels from foreign navies were arriving to help the devastated region, the Philippines kept its most advanced ships at dock, the navy spokesperson said “we had lots of ships already there, in the Visayas,” and he had no clear explanation of why, then, the two Philippine ships were eventually deployed to the same region when the crisis was less severe.
Nor did the Philippine air force shine in the crisis. The New York Times reported that due to a lack of spare parts, the nation’s fleet of C-130 cargo planes, heavy-lift transporters useful for relief efforts (as well as defense), had been whittled down to two or three aircraft. IHS Jane’s Defense Weekly reported that of the Philippine air force’s 44 Huey helicopters, only 28 were functioning. The New York Times also noted, in an understatement, that “the military budget itself has been pilfered by corrupt government officials in previous administrations.”
As the extent of the typhoon tragedy unfolded in the Visayan Islands, another story unfolded in the national prosecutor’s office in Manila. Numerous legislators were implicated in a $230 million scheme to pocket government poverty-reduction funds. On November 21, thirteen days after more than 5,500 people were killed by the storm surge and 195-mph winds of Haiyan, a government ombudsman placed three lawmakers under investigation, including Juan Ponce Enrile, the 89-year-old Senate Minority Leader.
Enrile, who has stated he is innocent, previously served for fifteen years as Secretary of Defense during the 1965-1986 Marcos administration, now recognized as one of the most corrupt regimes of the twentieth century. A week after the ombudsman’s action against Enrile, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld an anti-graft ruling against former Armed Forces Chief Lisandro Abadia in a 2005 case alleging accumulation of “unexplained wealth.”
Although the recent anti-corruption investigations are encouraging, the continuing culture of defense-crippling graft stemming from the Marcos years will likely require generations to remedy. This must give comfort to geopolitical planners in Beijing. But Beijing’s effective annexation of the South China Sea (the largest territorial expansion since Japan’s acquisitions leading up to World War II) must also carry calculations of the willingness and ability of the United States to act as a defense backstop for the Philippines, as enshrined in a 1951 mutual defense treaty.