A recent Stratbase-commissioned survey by Pulse Asia gives us a glimpse into how Filipinos see our security issues in the West Philippine Sea, how much they trust other nations and how they believe the Marcos administration should capitalize on popular support to pursue strategic and concrete decisions on defense and security.
The survey, conducted between Dec. 3 and 7, 2023, showed that 90% of Filipinos do not see China as a trustworthy partner in protecting the West Philippine Sea, given the issue’s implications on our security and economy.
Filipinos believe the Marcos administration should work with the following countries amid geopolitical challenges: the United States (79%), Australia (43%) and Japan (42%) to foster economic growth even as we uphold our 2016 victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which rendered baseless China’s claims based on a so-called nine-dash line.
This arbitral victory needs to be protected and asserted because it affirms our rights to the West Philippine Sea and promotes a rule-based international order. We should also maintain sovereign and territorial integrity, protect marine resources from further destruction and prevent the abuse of such valuable resources.
Since the start of his administration, and distinguishing himself from his immediate predecessor, President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. has made strong statements on the West Philippine Sea. At one point, he vowed that he would not give up a square inch of Philippine territory. The survey showed that most Filipinos or 55% agree he can fulfill this promise of protecting the West Philippine Sea against the illegal and aggressive actions of other states.
There are several steps the administration can take in asserting its right in the West Philippine Sea, according to the survey. Among these measures are strengthening the external defense capability of the Philippines especially the Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard through the AFP modernization program (67%), reinforcing alliances and partnerships with like-minded countries through joint patrols and military exercises (56%) and establishing a stronger military presence in the West Philippine Sea by repairing the BRP Sierra Madre, conducting regular resupply missions and ensuring control of Ayungin Shoal (52%).
Of course, parallel to these diplomatic efforts, the Philippines also internally has to improve cooperation among agencies involved in maritime security (52%). This includes promoting a whole-of-Philippine society approach involving the government, private sector and civil society organizations prioritizing the national interest.
What do these survey results mean, and in which direction do they point us?
First, it means that our arbitral victory is globally acknowledged by nations that share our values of respect for the international order and basic decency. These countries recognize the Philippines’ bravery against China’s coercive, illegal and aggressive actions within the West Philippine Sea.
In the past year saw, the Philippines made use of assertive transparency as a tool and weapon to expose China’s actions and to solidify support for a rule-based international order. We knew how crucial it was to make our people and the international community aware that the government is prioritizing the national interest in its domestic and international engagements.
Heeding public sentiment, the administration should continue its strategic strengthening and collaborative efforts with key allies including the three countries – the US, Australia and Japan – most trusted by Filipinos as revealed in the survey.
Early initiatives this year indicate this is so.
On Jan. 19, the Philippines and Canada signed a memorandum of understanding on defense cooperation. Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, Jr. is optimistic about the imminent agreement, noting that increased defense collaboration aligns with the nation’s stance on the arbitral award and the West Philippine Sea, and will also include cyber-security cooperation, addressing both military and civilian vulnerabilities.
The Philippines is in negotiations for a defense deal with Japan, and we aim to sign the reciprocal access agreement this year.
On Jan. 11, the Philippines and United Kingdom signed a defense and security cooperation agreement that will focus on training, capacity-building, peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and research and technology. This is crucial to maritime security in the South China Sea.
Like other countries, Germany and Indonesia have also expressed readiness to collaborate with the Philippines in enhancing maritime cooperation and finalizing a code of conduct for the South China Sea.
With the support and cooperation of our partners and allies, the Philippines feels emboldened to assert its rights and demonstrate to China that we will not be bullied within our own sovereign territory. The administration is planning to develop islands in the West Philippine Sea, including Thitu (Pag-asa) and Nanshan (Lawak) islands, as part of efforts to improve facilities and living conditions for soldiers. Ultimately, this plan is beneficial in asserting the country’s sovereignty and demonstrating a commitment to national security, as it aims to enhance the living conditions of Filipino soldiers while strengthening the nation’s defense capabilities.
Defense and security risks in the Indo-Pacific region are expected to intensify in the coming years. It also makes sense to anticipate the emergence of unforeseen security risks that could significantly reshape the geopolitical landscape.
The administration is aware it enjoys and must sustain the trust and confidence of the people. Filipinos expect our leaders to do the right thing amidst geopolitical threats.
Our partnerships with like-minded friends and allies have benefited us greatly and will be central to the preservation of the established order in the region and in the world.
Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the president of the Stratbase ADR Institute.