What Does the Rise of the New Philippines Space Agency Mean?

A closer look at the broader significance of recent efforts in this realm.

What Does the Rise of the New Philippines Space Agency Mean?
Credit: Presidential Communications Office of the Philippines

Last week, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte finally signed a law that would pave the way for the creation of a more comprehensive Philippine policy toward outer space, including the setting up of a new space agency. The development spotlighted the broader issue of the evolution of Philippine space policy amid the range of opportunities and challenges therein as well as wider regional and international developments.

The Philippines has long had an interest in outer space, including efforts to build satellites dating back to the 1960s as well as involvement in aspects of other areas such as education, training, and international cooperation with countries such as Japan. But the development of Philippine space policy has been hampered by several challenges, including the lack of coordination and the establishment of a single designated space agency. Over the past few years, however, several bills have been advanced to attempt to address these lingering obstacles, and this has gained greater traction over the past year with a piece of legislation going past various rounds of approval.

Last week, the development of Philippine space policy was in the headlines again with the signing of a law by Duterte to create the new Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA). Duterte signed what has been dubbed the Philippine Space Act (RA 11363) on August 8 after legislative efforts on this front that have long been in the works.

Though the signing was expected and long-anticipated, it is not without significance. The Philippine Space Act articulates the case for the Philippines to formulate a comprehensive space policy to both protect its sovereignty and national interests as well as to respond to regional developments, including the pursuit of space capabilities by other neighboring states and the broader international conversation about regulating certain behaviors in outer space. It also clearly lays out the framework for Philippine space policy around six key development areas with respect to space science and technology applications (SSTAs), including: national security and development; hazard management and climate studies; space research and development; space industry capacity building; space education and awareness; and international cooperation.

The Philippine Space Act also breaks ground in terms of attempting to chart out how Philippine space policy should be organized, including the role for the new Philippine Space Agency (PhilSA). The legislation specifies the powers and functions of PhilSA – including policy, planning and coordination; improved public access and resource-sharing; research and development; education and capacity-building; industry development; international cooperation – and clarifies how PhilSA will be situated and how it will be organized, noting that it will be an attached agency of the Office of the President to ensure alignment with national priorities and will be headed by its own director general with cabinet secretary rank, supported by three deputy director generals. Beyond PhilSA, it also paves the way for the establishment of other institutions such as the Philippine Space Council to facilitate coordination and integration on space policy that is chaired by the president.

With the Philippine Space Act finally passed, the focus will now shift to how it will be implemented, including specific aspects such as PhilSA’s establishment. It is still early days, and the lag time between the first proposal of legislation on this front and the Act’s actual passage is testament to how long efforts can take to take root in the domestic context. And beyond the Philippines, space policy across several countries is littered with examples of remaining gaps between clearly articulated policy frameworks and the realities that actually unfold due to a range of challenges including bureaucratic processes, politicization, and resource differentials.

These challenges are not unknown to the proponents of a more comprehensive Philippine space policy, even if they will be difficult to overcome in practice. And, to be fair, there are at least modest attempts to get at some of the issues in legislation, including situating PhilSA in the office of the president, clearly delineating its functions, transferring some resources and activities from other agencies, articulating some standards for the hiring of its leadership, and setting aside some initial funding – including a designated Philippine Space Development Fund – for its initial development. Whether or not all of this will be sufficient to ensure that Philippine aspirations on outer space policy will translate into reality remains to be seen.