The Chinese drive to control what is called the South China Sea is easily understood when one considers that US Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783 serves as the People’s Liberation Army Bible on sea power.


At the risk of over-simplifying Mahan’s complex work, the major assertion in my mind is the link between a powerful navy and being a major player in the world stage -- think Great Britain and the United States!



Everyone has seen and felt the economic effects of the Chinese Dragon awakened. Even the world of capitalist “high society,” if magazines like The Tatler are to be believed, have felt this awakening.

With these developments, China’s assertion of its military power by occupying maritime territories they are known to have claimed earlier should have been anticipated, at the very least by our defense and foreign affairs officials. That they have largely not, gauging from the behavior of our national and business leaders, makes me think that most of our government and business leaders are either been ignorant of regional and world history, mindless of ‘realpolitik’, or stupefied by years of military dependence on the USA. Perhaps it has been all of the above.

This mindlessness, this complacency, has resulted in the lack of attention given to the defense of our territorial integrity. We wound up with an air force and a navy that had no force to project. Today, when these two arms of our Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) are finally receiving the attention they deserve, it is easy to forget that a decade ago, our PAF was called the Philippine Air ‘Farce’ and our navy the Philippine ‘No-B’ (no boats)!

Leticia Ramos Shahani, highly respected former senator and ambassador, makes an excellent point. She thinks this “blind spot” results from our lack of a well articulated statement of national interest, of what is important to us as a nation, of what we are willing to fight for.

Last year, Indonesian President Joko Widodo articulated a maritime policy that so obviously recognizes their archipelagic nature and the importance of sea transport in their progress and development. It also addressed the challenge of rebuilding their navy.

Recently, Indonesia responded to foreign vessel incursions into its territorial waters aggressively, including arresting the crew of a Chinese ship that allegedly fished illegally in its waters. It also shot at two Taiwanese ships that it alleged had trespassed into Indonesian waters. These incidents, criticized by some, have raised Indonesia’s position as a key player in the South China Sea conflicts. A quick Web research shows that Indonesia has both naval and air power projection capabilities, as do Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan. Even Argentina has sunk Chinese vessels fishing illegally in Argentine waters. The Philippines, until lately, had none.

The Chinese incursions were, in my mind, a much needed slap-in-the-face for us. Without that, we would have remained oblivious to our lack of credible naval and air forces, of a lack of coast guarding capabilities, and of a lack of any commonly accepted properly and clearly articulated statement of Philippine interests.

Even today, we lack well articulated defense policies, strategies, and plans that show how our territorial defense forces -- the AFP, the Coast Guard, and the Philippine National Police (PNP) -- and support organizations like the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources will collaborate in ensuring the integrity of Philippine waters.

Many months back I read Philippine Navy, Philippine Coast Guard, and Philippine Air Force documents that outline defense strategies. Of these, the most explicit and ramified -- though still not enough, looking at it did only on what the organization wanted to do, was the Philippine Navy’s.

I was also privileged to have been given a collection of papers published by then Commodore Jose Renan Suarez, PN/AFP (I am very proud to say he is a fellow Asian Institute of Management alumnus) in the form of two books, Sailing Better and A Sailor’s Mind and Thoughts, both published in 2012.

Com. Suarez wrote that the navy has “An Active Archipelagic Defense Strategy (AADS) that addresses the need to defend our territory and secure our maritime interests.” AADS seeks to “proactive control of our seas and the denial of their use by any adversary.” By pursuing this strategy, our navy seeks to secure Philippine sovereignty, defend territorial integrity and protect our maritime interests.” It will also, through AADS, defeat internal security threats and ensure our people’s security and national stability.”

To achieve these, Com. Suarez states that naval modernization is the key.

That modernization is linked to a “desired force mix needed to properly perform the stated missions,” which in turn are “a function of size of the area of operations.” We have a coastline that is 36,289 kilometers long. As of 2009, based on the 12 nautical miles (22.2 kilometers) from low water lines of our coasts, our well-defined territorial waters are 2,200,000 square kilometers in area, and much, much bigger if we choose to extend it as have other national conventions. There is also the consideration of the continental shelf.

Another set of major considerations are the nature and sources of the different threats we face. Our nearness to several nations equally dependent on maritime resources -- Indonesia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Cambodia, China, Taiwan, Japan and the Koreas, present us with a very varied set of challenges or threats.

Our ability to respond immediately to the challenges and threats are a function of our current assets and the ready availability of resources we need to expend to use these assets effectively. At the moment, we cannot credibly respond militarily to these threats.

To do so in the future we will need a plan that shows clearly and rationally how we shall acquire the needed land sea and air assets that can help us detect threats long before they come close to our shores. These will not only require a blue water navy backed by the state-of-the-art electronic equipment, but also land-based and air electronic detection equipment and support fire power.

The obviously-by-now-dated equipment acquisition plans I saw from the navy, air force, and coast guard planning organizations had the quality of wish lists. I thought there had been no attempt to avoid wide and deep overlaps that are avoidable if these various organizations choose to move as a team.

To prevent incursions we will need major modern bottoms (ships) that can move far out to sea swiftly. We will need a flotilla of smaller vessels, frigates, and gunboats that can be stationed around our smaller islands especially in the South China Sea.

We will need fixed and rotary wing aircraft of different sizes and capabilities for constant aerial surveillance and the capacity to attack and disable invaders.

I am convinced we have good and dedicated people in our armed forces and coast guard who are eager to perform their duties as laid out. We have failed them miserably in not having provided them the adequate updated assets and resources with which to perform their mission while placing them squarely in harm’s way, especially in the South China Sea.

The incoming Administration and Congress have their work cut out for them in this area. They will have to articulate our national interest, our national security policy, and our defense policy. And then they will have to cause the crafting of the plans and programs, and work out the budgets, enact these, allocate and disburse these so that the policies become reality.

Mario Antonio G. Lopez teaches at the Asian Institute of Management and consults for business, government and civil society. This article originally appeared on the his BusinessWorld column