Philippines Defense and Foreign Policy

Foreign policy and defense

Philippines is a nation in Southeastern Asia. Its capital city is Manila. The strong ties to the US dominate foreign policy. The Americans had military bases in the country for a long time, but were forced to leave them in 1992, but military cooperation continued even after that. At the same time, contacts with other Asian countries have become more important. However, relations with China in particular are disturbed by a dispute over an island group in the South China Sea. After the change of power in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has both ended up on a collision course with the US and China, which has adopted a more conciliatory line vis-à-vis the two major powers. The Philippines has also approached Russia.

philippines military spending and defense budget

Assessors pointed out that the president often acted to try to gain benefits by playing the United States, China, and to some extent, Russia against each other.

As long as Barack Obama remained as US president, contacts between the Philippines and the US were complicated, as Duterte reacted negatively to all criticism of the human rights crimes committed in the country. After Donald Trump took over as US President in 2017, relations improved, but even then, Duterte quickly swung between positions.

Since 2002, the United States has been military advisers in the country to assist the Philippine Army in its offensive against Abu Sayyaf and other militant Islamist groups (see Muslim separatists). However, the American soldiers have no right to participate in fighting. The soldiers also assist in development projects. Joint military exercises have also been held annually at various locations in the Philippines (see below). The Philippines also participated with a small force in Iraq in 2003, but it was withdrawn in 2004 a month earlier than planned, despite criticism from the United States.

When Benigno Aquino took over as president in 2010, in September / October he made his first official trip to the United States, signaling that he wanted even closer contacts with Washington, in an attempt to balance China’s growing influence in the region. During his US visit, Aquino was promised more aid and investment. American soldiers also assisted in the rescue work after the typhoon Haiyan 2013.

In 2014, the countries renewed their defense agreement. The new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)), gives the United States greater access to Philippine military bases. In the Philippines, the agreement has been criticized mainly by left-wing politicians. However, Duterte said in September 2016 that he wanted the United States to bring in his military advisers from Mindanao in the southern Philippines, as they contributed to tensions in the region rather than counteracting them. He also announced a stop for joint marine exercises. The course change was welcomed by China. However, the joint exercise was held as planned in 2016. One of the exercises was canceled the following year, but was not completely stopped. However, when a new Islamist group entered the city of Marawi in May 2017, the Philippine army was assisted by US military advisers. Duterte claimed he did not know this, but at the same time thanked the United States for the help.

Duterte has also made several drastic statements about breaking ties with the United States, including a state visit to China in October 2016, but the importance of this was later downplayed by several of his ministers. In early 2020, however, the Philippines announced that it would terminate one of the military agreements, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which, if nothing new, would end within six months, hamper any continued military cooperation between the countries (see also Calendar). The agreement, which enables military cooperation and states that US military cannot be prosecuted in the Philippines. was terminated via a document signed by Foreign Minister Teddy Locsin, who at the same time claimed that it was about getting a revision, not ending it. At the same time, Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana had briefly stated beforehand that all talk of terminating the agreement was “fake news”. It was pointed out that VFA was the basis for maintaining other defense agreements between the Philippines and the United States and that the decision to terminate it could have serious consequences. In addition, the Philippines continues to depend on the United States, not least because almost all defense equipment is American. Islamist terrorist groups. In June 2020, the government made a reversal, saying that no decisions on the issue would be made until the earliest. It is likely that China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea are behind the turnaround.

The Philippines also has defense cooperation with Australia.

Conflict over the Sprat Islands

Relations with China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are disturbed by the countries claiming, in whole or in part, the Spratly Islands (in the Philippines called the Kayalaan archipelago), which is located in an area of ​​the South China Sea (which the Philippines began calling the West Philippine Sea in 2011) which is believed to be rich in oil. Tensions have emerged several times between the Philippines and China, despite pledges that the countries should try to find peaceful solutions in regional conflicts. The United States supports the Philippines’ demands on the Sprat Islands. The two countries have conducted several military exercises near the islands.

The unrest area has been growing since 2011. The Philippines has accused China of entering the oceans on several occasions known as Filipino. China, for its part, has criticized the Philippines for starting to search for oil and gas in areas claimed by the Chinese. One of the most serious incidents occurred in April 2012, near Scarborough Shoal, when a Philippine naval ship attempted to intervene on Chinese fishing vessels which they claimed were not allowed to fish in the area. In June, however, the Philippines decided to withdraw its vessels from the area, which was welcomed by China. Shortly thereafter, the Chinese fishing boats also left the area.

In 2013, the Philippines said that the diplomatic channels had been exhausted to resolve the dispute and that they had asked the UN to mediate between the parties. Both countries have signed the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The stance between the countries continued to be high and China threatened to impose financial sanctions on the Philippines. In 2014, President Aquino compared China’s actions with Hitler’s. His tough line against China received strong support at home.

After four years of work, the United Nations Permanent Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague in July 2016 announced its ruling in the Philippines-China conflict over China’s claim of 85 percent of the territorial waters of the South China Sea. The Court went on the Philippines’ line and ruled that the Chinese claims “have no legal basis”. Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China rejected the verdict and would not accept any documents based on this decision. China also said it had the right to set up an air defense zone in the conflict area and announced that it would now begin regular air surveillance there.

The Philippines is approaching China

Having previously threatened to hold a hard line against China, Duterte announced at a summit in Asean in September 2016 that the Philippines would no longer patrol the waters around the Sprat Islands with ships of foreign power, that is, the United States. Duterte also tried in other ways to approach China. He tried to persuade the Chinese to slow down in the development of the Scarborough Shoal and to try to agree on common fishing rights.

He approached Beijing further in connection with a state visit to China in the fall of 2016. At that time, the countries signed 13 cooperation agreements dealing with coordination of coastguard, drug trafficking, infrastructure and more. In addition, China pledged $ 24 billion in loans. The following year, President Duterte made several statements suggesting a closer relationship between the countries. In November 2017, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited the Philippines and promised new Chinese loans for several infrastructure projects, later promises of even more money for various infrastructure projects. China also helped the Philippines with weapons and ammunition in connection with the Islamist siege of the city of Marawi in Mindanao (see Muslim separatists). The countries also agreed on a proposal on how bilateral Disputes in the South China Sea would be resolved, but nevertheless new word wars have flared up.

Relations with other Asian countries

The Philippines is part of ASEAN which has gradually developed into a significant political and economic force. Cooperation is important for the Philippines as it gives the country a regional identity that has nothing to do with the United States.

In 2013, tensions also increased between the Philippines and Taiwan since the Philippine Coast Guard shot to death a Taiwanese fisherman who they claimed had entered Philippine waters. President Aquino apologized for the shooting, which he said was unintentional, but Taiwan highlighted that the apology was insufficient. Taiwan took several measures, including stopping all new work permits for Filipino workers (about 87,000 Filipinos lived and worked in Taiwan) and a travel alert to the Philippines was issued. Taiwan also recalled its envoy to the Philippines.

Relations with Malaysia have been strengthened through the neighboring country’s role as mediator between the Philippine government and the Milf guerrilla. The relationship between the countries has been complicated to some extent by the so-called Sultanate of Sulu, in the southern Philippines, claiming the Malaysian state of Sabah. A Filipino clan’s attack on a village in Sabah was quickly defeated by the Malaysian military in early 2013. At least 70 people were killed. The Government of the Philippines highlighted that it had nothing to do with the attack. Concerns were then high about how the event would affect the approximately 800,000 Filipinos working in Sabah. In 2016, nine Filipinos were sentenced by a Sabah court to life imprisonment for their role in the attack.

Japan is also an important partner country and several large Japanese companies have interests in the Philippine industry. Japan is also an important aid provider, and in recent years, the countries have increased their cooperation on security and organized crime. In January 2017, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign head of government to visit the Philippines after Duterte came to power.

In 2014, after many years of negotiations, the Philippines and Indonesia concluded a settlement as to where the sea border between the countries would go. A few years later, they started a collaboration, together with Malaysia, to better protect themselves from terrorist and pirate attacks. The following year they began to jointly patrol the Sulus and Celebs. In 2018, the three countries, Thailand, Singapore and Brunei, began to share intelligence reports.

In recent years, the Philippines has concluded a number of trade agreements with Myanmar.

In connection with the murder of a Filipino woman in Kuwait in 2020, the Philippine government decided to prevent its citizens from visiting guests in the country. A similar stop was introduced in connection with another murder of a Filipino guest worker in Kuwait (see Calendar).


Alongside the Army (Armed Forces of the Philippines, AFP) is the National Police (Philippine National Police, PNP) which also belongs to the defense.

In the mid-1990s, large parts of the defense equipment were old, some of the navy vessels were from World War II, and helicopters used by the United States during the Vietnam War were used. A modernization of the defense was initiated by Benigno Aquino, but although the appropriations for the military increased sharply, there was not enough money to complete the plans. However, since 2000, the Philippines has received military support for about $ 800 million from the United States, in the form of military equipment (including drones, helicopters and automatic carbines). Under Duterte, further defense efforts have been announced, and in 2018 submitted a five-year plan with a budget of $ 5.6 billion for the purchase of new equipment, including from South Korea and Israel.

Defense-political cooperation began with Russia in the fall of 2017. In connection with a Russian warship visiting Manila in October that year, the Philippines received 5,000 automatic carbines (kalashnikovs) and 20 army vehicles. The Philippines also signed an agreement to buy Russian grenade launchers, but no mention was made of the quantities involved. China, too, has donated weapons to the Philippines.

Both the army and the PNP are accused of human rights violations and corruption. This also applies to militia groups such as Citizen Armed Forces Geographical Units (CAFGU), which are formally controlled by the military, and Civilian Volunteers Organizations (CVO) that are under police control.

There are also a large number of private armies, most of them in Mindanao, usually formed to protect the interests of provincial politicians and powerful landowners (both Muslim and Christian). Periodically, private armies have been able to register as CAFGU or CVO militia, which has meant that they have been able to obtain weapons from the government army.


Army: 86 000 men (2017)

The air Force: 15,000 men (2017)

The fleet: 24 000 men (2017)

Military expenditure’s share of GDP: 1.4 percent (2017)

Military spending’s share of the state budget: 6.9 percent (2017)