Marcos Jr in a delicate and dangerous three-front war

Marcos Jr in a delicate and dangerous three-front war

MANILA – “History has proven that they are not serious and have no sincerity when it comes to peace negotiations,” declared Philippine Vice President Sara Duterte in a spirited speech castigating the Marcos Jr administration’s plan to renew long-stalled peace negotiations with communist rebels.

“They will use this peace negotiation to betray the government and fool the people,” she said while claiming any deal with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its National People’s Army (NPA) armed wing would be an “agreement with the devil.”

For months, former president Rodrigo Duterte and his supporters have been lambasting many of Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s key policies, including his administration’s rapid expansion of defense ties with Western allies, a break from Duterte’s often heated antagonism toward the US and EU.

Earlier this year, Duterte personally visited Beijing to discuss ways to de-escalate bilateral tensions in the South China Sea without any coordination with the Philippine government.

For the first time, however, Sara has effectively joined her father’s camp by openly criticizing a major pillar of Marcos Jr’s national security policy. As such, there is growing speculation of an impending conflict between the two powerful political dynasties ahead of 2025 midterm elections.

If that weren’t enough, Marcos Jr is now also grappling with the potential resurgence of the Islamic State to the country’s restive southern island of Mindanao.

Last week, suspected terrorists reportedly belonging to the militant Dawla Islamiyah and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) groups targeted a Catholic mass in a major public university in the city of Marawi, the site of a months-long devastating siege by IS-affiliated militants in 2017.

A Filipino soldier uses binoculars during the siege of Marawi City by Islamic State-aligned militants, July 1, 2017. Photo: Twitter

All of a sudden, Marcos Jr is confronting multiple challenges at home just as Philippine-China maritime spats in the South China Sea intensify to what some fear could be a tipping point.

Deepening crises on the home front could undermine Manila’s efforts to reorient its defense posture to focus on external security threats led by China’s assertiveness over Philippine-claimed waters and maritime features.

At the dawn of the Cold War, the Armed Forces of the Philippines was among the most formidable in the region. Trained and armed with advanced American weapons systems, and hosting the largest overseas US bases, the Southeast Asian nation was a major bulwark against the expansion of communism in Asia.

In fact, the Philippines’ own successful struggle against communist insurgencies in the 1950s served as a role model for America’s modern counter-insurgency strategy. In both the Korean and Indochina Wars, the Philippines served as a vital ally for the US, which faced a twin communist challenge from both the Soviet Union and China.

The declaration of martial law by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Sr, however, was both a response to as well as an accelerant of a new wave of insurgencies in the Philippines.

The notoriously corrupt and brutal Filipino dictator effectively triggered a half-a-century-long double insurgency, as both Moro Islamists as well as Maoist rebels began to mobilize across the country’s impoverished provinces.

The upshot was the complete reorientation of the AFP toward domestic security, with the Philippine Army dominating strategic decision-making as well as budgetary allocations.

To make matters worse, Marcos-era corruption began to emaciate the Philippine bureaucracy, including the country’s armed forces, which came under the control of the dictator’s favorites and cousins.

Saddled by Marcos-era debt and a deep legacy of institutional corruption, multiple Filipino presidents struggled to end insurgencies and revamp the country’s armed forces.

Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the Philippines effectively outsourced its external security needs to the Americans under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and through the Excess Defense Articles, the Military Assistance and the Foreign Military Sales programs.

The sudden closure of American bases in the early 1990s left the Philippine military in dire straits. China’s growing maritime assertiveness, culminating in Beijing’s occupation of the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, served as a wake-up call for the Filipino defense establishment.

Philippine and US Marines during a surface-to-air missile simulation as part of exercise Kamandag joint exercises on October 10, 2019. Photo: Lance Cpl. Brienna Tuck / US Marine Corps

President Fidel Ramos, a top general during the Marcos dictatorship, was the first post-Cold War Filipino leader to seek to address the issue. Under his watch, the Philippines passed the 1995 AFP Modernization Act, which sought to modernize the country’s military.

The advent of the devastating 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, however, undermined those efforts. It didn’t take long, however, before domestic security issues began to dominate Philippine national security strategy.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the US enlisted the Philippines as a major non-NATO ally in its “Global War on Terror”, thus making counterterrorism a centerpiece of the alliance. 

Over the next decade, the Philippine military largely focused on domestic insurgencies, both communist and Islamist. But China’s maritime assertiveness, culminating in the eventual seizure of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012, triggered another round of defense buildup in the Southeast Asian nation.

In December 2012, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III oversaw the passage of the Revised AFP Modernization Act, amending the 1995 AFP Modernization Act, which extended the AFP’s modernization for another 15 years.

During his first three years in office, the Aquino administration allocated US$648.44 million to modernizing the AFP, with the year 2013 seeing a 17% increase in defense spending. 

For the 2013-2017 period, it allocated $1.73 billion for defense procurement alone. The modernization effort, spread across three five-year “horizons”, continued under the Duterte administration, which sought to allocate as much as $5.6 billion (300 billion pesos) for the acquisition of modern fighters, submarines, frigates and strategic weapons systems.

Despite acquiring modern fighter jets, frigates and missile systems, the Philippines has still fallen well short of its initial targets. Aside from bureaucratic red tape and a lack of consensus on arms acquisitions, the Covid-19 pandemic also heavily undermined the Philippine economy, which posted five quarters of recession over the 2020-2021 period.

According to Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, the AFP only completed 10% of its first five-year acquisition target (Horizon 1) and about 53% of its second five-year acquisition target (Horizon 2).

The third phase (Horizon 3), from 2023 to 2028, is supposed to culminate in the acquisition of modern multirole fighter jets, radars, frigates, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and a submarine fleet.

A Philippine Marine after fast-roping out of an MV-22B Osprey tiltrotor aircraft at Basa Air Field, January 22, 2016. Photo: US Marine Corps via Twitter

The Philippine legislature has allocated 45 billion pesos ($793 million) in defense spending next year, but this is unlikely to fill in the gaps. The sheer speed and scale of China’s defense build-up dwarfs all neighbors combined and the Asian superpower is expected even to surpass America’s spending in coming decades.

“[W]e have to re-strategize,” Teodoro told lawmakers earlier this year when asked about the Philippine military’s modernization program. Indeed, amid deepening and increasingly volatile maritime disputes with China, the Philippines can ill afford a resurgence of domestic security distractions.

But with insurgent threats rising, China tensions escalating and political allies turning foe in the Dutertes, Marcos Jr suddenly faces what could be characterized as a three-front war.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X, formerly Twitter, at @Richeydarian