Why the Philippines Needs to Work With the Pacific Island Nations

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ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

Why the Philippines Needs to Work With the Pacific Island Nations

In an increasingly complex geopolitical environment, Manila has good reasons to develop relations with other archipelagic states, including those to its south and east.

Why the Philippines Needs to Work With the Pacific Island Nations
Credit: Depositphotos

The current foreign and defense policy discourse in the Philippines is largely focused on issues surrounding the South China Sea and cross-strait relations. These matters continue to dominate the strategic thinking and security logic of Filipino national security administrators, whose eyes and ears are focused overwhelmingly on the country’s northern and western approaches. These discussions weigh heavily during public fora and Congressional discussions regarding funding and support for maritime agencies, particularly the Philippine Coast Guard and the Philippine Navy, which are heavily informed by China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.

On the possibility of China’s reunification with Taiwan through force, the Philippines is encouraged to think about its position and role not just as a country of geographical proximity to Taiwan but also as a treaty ally of the United States. Ongoing debates on the risks and opportunities of last year’s expansion of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), especially since it provides U.S. access to bases in Northern Luzon close to Taiwan, have been closely linked to recent developments in the Taiwan Strait.

While the threats on these two fronts are imminent, the Philippines must also pay close attention to its eastern and southern fronts facing the Pacific Ocean, which are often forgotten in the foreign policy discourses and defense planning of the Philippines.

A genuine shift from an inward security orientation to a more outward-looking security policy should start with a regional security outlook, if not a global security perspective, to inform the country’s policies and programs. It must be underscored that the national security situation of the Philippines is not entirely a result of its domestic conditions but is increasingly shaped by the global and regional realities that underpin the stability of the Indo-Pacific region to which it belongs.

The Philippines can no longer afford to settle for a national security vision without imagining and working towards a regional security vision. After all, it recognizes in almost all its policy documents that no one country can solve the challenges the world is facing today and that its strategic environment greatly impacts how it achieves its objectives and agenda.

As the second largest archipelagic state in the world after neighboring Indonesia, the regional security vision of the Philippines will inevitably be maritime – that is, it will emphasize that the responsible use of the sea is central to the security of the Indo-Pacific region. While the return of great power rivalry is the ultimate subtext of the security challenges faced by many states in the region, such competition has manifested most clearly in the maritime domain. Further, the Philippines’ link with its external environment often takes place through the sea, which puts into perspective the inherent importance of becoming a key maritime player in the region.

Apart from this physical space, the Philippines is digitally connected with the rest of the world. In this sense, it is logical to include cybersecurity and cyber defense as part of its regional security vision. It is true that the world now exists in parallel spaces one in the physical domain and the other in cyberspace – and therefore requires states to extend their ability to protect their interests beyond the physical environment. This, too, would require emphasis on the need to uphold standards, protocols, and norms for the responsible use of cyberspace.

The Philippines’ regional security vision could also be based on a third kind of connectivity: people-to-people connections. The Philippines has the highest number of emigrants of any nation in Southeast Asia and the ninth globally. Indo-Pacific countries such as the U.S., Canada, Japan, and Australia are among the major destinations for Filipino emigrants. This gives the Philippines a strong interest in protecting its overseas foreign workers and other emigrants across the world. A regional security vision of human security that includes the rights and security of immigrants should therefore also be central to the Philippine regional security agenda.

Having a regional security outlook underpinned by the Philippines’ physical, digital, and people-to-people connectivity to the rest of the Indo-Pacific region suggests prioritizing relations with other archipelagic states. Despite their size and role in regional affairs, it is important to remember that the Philippines and Indonesia are not the only archipelagic states in the region. The Indo-Pacific also includes the many Pacific Island nations, with which Manila and Jakarta worked side by side during the negotiations to include archipelagic principles in the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. This shared history of struggle for international recognition as archipelagic states offers a compelling reason to bolster cooperation with countries on the Philippines’ southeastern frontier. In fact, Indonesia has stepped up its efforts to work closely with Pacific Island states as it now recognizes that this can help support its strategic needs in an increasingly competitive world.

Considering Pacific Island nations’ inherent security concerns, and the areas where they closely align with those of the Philippines, is an opportunity to break the prevailing binary thinking in security cooperation, such as “choosing” between the U.S. and China, or opting to work either with ASEAN or within other multilateral arrangements outside the ASEAN framework.

Like the Philippines, Pacific Island states are confronted with consequences resulting from climate change and increased frequency of natural disasters, illegal and over-fishing, transnational crime, and human trafficking, among others. While the geopolitical rivalry between China and the U.S. is also felt in this region, the abovementioned security concerns are posing existential threats to island nations that require their governments’ utmost attention and their active participation in global cooperative mechanisms. Low-level diplomatic channels have been established but have not progressed much further. The current geopolitical situation presents an opportunity to widen the scope of cooperation between the Philippines and Pacific Island nations.

Forging security partnerships with these nations that are human-centered and not exclusively military is an opportunity for the Philippines to operationalize its shift towards a more outward-looking security orientation – one that can fulfill its middle power potential.

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