• Gen Emmanuel T. Bautista AFP RET

Defense and Security Priorities in the Philippine Maritime Zone

The wealth that comes with the vast maritime space of the Philippine archipelago presents a promise of deliverance for the nation. Thus, the Philippine maritime zones must always be in the consciousness of the Filipino people given their significance to the growth and development of our country. That is why there has been a deliberate effort to define the country’s maritime entitlements. Concomitant with this is the important task of capacitating ourselves to ensure that we can secure and benefit from what we are entitled to. Indeed, we have to realize that there are defense and security issues that come with the enjoyment of our legal rights and entitlements in the Philippines‘ maritime zones.

Defining our Entitlements in our Maritime Zones

Our legal maritime entitlements are under international law such as UNCLOS, the constitution, and other domestic laws and legislation. In the case of the West Philippine Sea, the country’s maritime entitlements have been further affirmed by the 2016 South China Sea Arbitration Award which invalidated China’s claims to historic rights over the South China Sea. While we refer to these authoritative sources, there is a need to clearly define the nuances of such entitlements. Thus, there has been a protracted effort to establish clear legal frameworks that would guide the country’s overarching maritime policies. Among these are the Archipelagic Baselines Law, or Republic Act 9522 passed in 2009; and the still pending Philippine Maritime Zones bill and Archipelagic Sea Lanes Bill. The proposed Maritime Zones Bill intends to define the breadth of the maritime zones under Philippine jurisdiction, while the Archipelagic Sea Lanes Bill seeks to establish the country’s archipelagic sea lanes that would set clearer rules on the passage of foreign vessels in Philippine archipelagic waters.

Defining the country’s maritime entitlements is the easier part. The more challenging responsibility lies in being able to protect these entitlements for the benefit of the Filipino people. How do we address the defense and security issues that hinder the Filipino people from enjoying their rights? This is a monumental task facing the national government and requires the collective effort of the Filipino people.

Defense and Security Issues

Even as we endeavor to define our rights in the Philippine maritime zones, defense and security issues have come to the fore. The maritime environment is threatened by environmental degradation and its concomitant adverse effect on Philippine domestic security, illegal exploitation of our marine resources, illegal activities, and other violations of our sovereignty and sovereign rights.

The Philippines’ maritime rights and entitlements are being challenged by China’s hegemonic ambition. China uses not just diplomatic coercion, but also prefers the gradual employment of force, albeit at a threshold short of war. This incremental approach referred to as the Gray Zone Strategy intends to limit the policy options available to the Philippines. The Gray Zone Strategy is not just manifested through military means. China also makes use of coercive tactics in the diplomatic, political, legal, information, financial, and economic spheres to advance its interests. This impedes our ability to benefit from the maritime environment for the growth and development of the country. Thus, this is the most significant challenge confronting the Philippines concerning the assertion of its rights and entitlements in the maritime zones.

Asserting our rights in our maritime zones

To be able to assert our sovereignty and sovereign rights, there is a need to capacitate not just the relevant agencies of government but also the rest of the nation. After all, national defense and security is a national responsibility. But what does it take to capacitate our nation?

Developing national capabilities can be achieved by bolstering the instruments of national power, not to wage war, but to demonstrate our resolve to protect our rights and secure our growth and development. The intent is to gain the respect of others so that they are dissuaded to trample upon our rights.

Maximizing the instruments of national power includes making use of diplomacy, political, legal, information, military, and economic means to achieve national goals and interests. The diplomacy track involves strengthening the country’s relations with the international community and taking on a proactive role in multilateral institutions so that we can influence the community of nations to bear upon respect for international law. The political track is concerned with the creation of a national consensus and, more importantly, political will; while the legal track involves strengthening our position in terms of the law. Advancing the Philippine narrative so that we have an informed citizenry and global audience is the focus of the information track. The economic track includes measures to sustain the country’s growth, develop economic resilience, avoid economic coercion, and protect strategic assets and industries. Lastly, the military track primarily focuses on the development of a credible defense posture to achieve a modicum of respect. It also involves showing the flag and the enforcement of laws. Neither of these instruments dominates or takes priority over the others. They must be employed synergistically and directed towards a clear objective.

What we want to achieve is a Whole of Nation Approach (WNA) where the entire nation is committed to securing our maritime zones in their ways. WNA does not imply the involvement of the different sectors in the physical defense of our maritime interests. We are not asking fishermen to patrol our seas, for example. What we hope to achieve is for each stakeholder to understand their role, which is simply to do their job. We want our fishermen to assert their rights and fish in our territorial waters and exclusive economic zone. We encourage our businessmen to invest in the blue economy and resource exploration and exploitation activities. We want our schools to teach our youth and inform them of the Philippine narrative. Relevant government agencies such as the Coast Guard, Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, and the Police Maritime Group - to perform their respective mandates. For the media to keep the public informed; and for each citizen to simply express their views. WNA means having a shared concept of security where everybody understands their roles and responsibilities. What we desire is for all of us to understand that what we do or fail to do will impact the security of our maritime zones, and ultimately of the future of our country.


We have entitlements in our maritime zones as bequeathed to us by international law and also by the Philippine constitution and relevant laws. These entitlements can only come to fruition if we can secure them. Our defense and security priority, therefore, is the assertion and protection of the Philippines’ maritime rights and entitlements for benefit of the country, the Filipino people, and its future generations.


Retired General Bautista was the Former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. He is presently a Trustee of the Institute for Solidarity in Asia, Counselor of the Amador Research Services, a member of the Board of Trustees of the Foundation for the National Interest.

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