• Chester Cabalza

The Philippines’ Stealthy Ascent to Middle Power

The Philippines co-founded the United Nations (UN) in 1945 with 50 other states, committed to maintaining international peace and security after the Second World War. The archipelagic state is also one of the five founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that was formally formed on 8 August 1967. In 2017, Manila chaired and celebrated the golden jubilee of ASEAN to deepen regional integration despite the increasing discussion of the regional security embroiled with global terrorism and unfinished sea row in the South China Sea.

Aside from its active participation in multilateral and minilateral initiatives, Manila houses the Asian Development Bank (ADB), established on December 19, 1966, to foster economic cooperation and growth in the most diverse continent in the world. The Philippines also develops rice varieties, and stocks all of its kind found on the planet, through the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), headquartered in the arable and sprawling farmland of Los Banos in Laguna. With rice as the staple food of the human population, this international agricultural research organization was instituted in 1960, to at least, reduce hunger and poverty around the globe. It realized its mandate when IRRI pre-empted famine in India, in the same period, when the world summoned a call for the ‘green revolution movement in the 1960s.

More so, Manila’s reputation is known in Asia for giving credible awards to distinguished Asians who excel in their body of works on government service, public service, community leadership, peace, and international understanding; and journalism, literature, and creative communication arts rendered by the Ramon Magsaysay Awards, in its annual award-giving tradition since 1957, equivalent to the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2019, the Philippines hosted the highly successful ‘ASEAN Games’ or ‘SEA Games’ and gave the best shot as the overall champion that duplicated its effort as the winner in 2005 that broke its medal count record in the previous hosting. These two multi-sport events in 2005 and 2019 competed by athletes from 11 counties in Southeast Asia became more advantageous for many Filipino sports players in their home court making them the best competitors in the region. Although, the Philippines hosted the Southeast Asia Games four times in 1981, 1991, 2005, and 2019; the 30th edition of the biennial regional event, although decentralized and spread across the maritime country, lauded by the Olympic Council of Asia for its facilities and hospitality.

The Philippines’ strategic soft power shone again in 2016, known as the smiling brown people, hooked in boxing personified by the legendary Manny Pacquiao and pageantry represented by successful beauty queens, hosted for the third time the 65th edition of Miss Universe in Manila, after the Philippines brought home its third crown in 2015 and fourth sweet success in 2018. This despite that Manila annually hosts global pageantry called Miss Earth, owned by a local foundation, established in 2001 to represent environmental advocacies.

The Philippines’ economic buoyancy also strides upward since the second decade of the 21st century, making it the third-biggest economy by nominal gross domestic product (GDP) in Southeast Asia, 13th leading in Asia, and the 29th largest in the world. By projection, it could become the fifth economic leader in the most diversified Asia and the 16th richest nation in the world by 2050. Although, as one of the fastest-growing economies, the Philippines, grouped in the Next Eleven or the Tiger Cub economies, still struggles with inclusive growth and building infrastructure necessary to ensure future-proof growth.

This roller-coaster economic development of the Philippines can be described as a former ‘sick man of Asia’ to a ‘tiger cub’ to almost reaching the newly industrialized country’s ‘upper-middle class’ status if not of the Covid-19 pandemic. It posted an average economic growth of 6.4 percent from 2010 to 2019 but the global health crisis tested the country’s resilience in 2020. Its economic performance in 2020 brought the worst contraction since the Second World War with a GDP falling to 9.5 percent in 2020.

Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, the Philippines experienced the worst contraction. Although, harsh lockdowns are imposed, using its armed forces as a way to address a global health crisis, the spread of the virus has not been effectively contained. As a direct result, it has led the country’s economy to slide and undeniably seen as the worst economic performance globally. As a lesson’s learned, a larger budget for 2021 will be used to help jump-start the economic recovery by prioritizing key infrastructure projects and the transformation of the agriculture industry into a dynamic agri-business sector, and a greater impetus to strengthen the country’s laggard digital economy.

The Façade of a Middle Power

Italian political thinker and strategist, Giovanni Botero, conceptualized the origins of European states system and pitched the idea of a ‘middle power’ while apportioning it to three natures of states: grandissime (empires), mezano (middle powers), and picciolo (small powers). In his conceivable perception of the mezano, he toyed the iota of a state, having sufficient authority and strength to stand on its own without the need of help from other nations. That impressive ancient allegory of the middle power has been reinforced by Eduard Joordan, as he carved a distinction between emerging and traditional middle powers, in the greater analytical role of what constitutes a middle power. In his nuance of alternative tone, he deems that the middle power, ‘displays foreign policy behavior that may legitimize or stabilize the global order, typically through multilateral and cooperative initiatives.

A certain distinction of a middle power factor connotes intriguing and persuading ‘foreign policy behavior’ in carving out its niche in a situational regional or global security complex, pursuing a narrow range of national interest that collides with and against the great powers’ interests. These hardened stances of strategic persuasion will address the mutually-influencing ego that a middle power may possess – attributable to its strategic importance, economic influence, social-democratic echo in governance, cleverness in its use of international legal instruments, and the ambivalent regional orientation as a catalyst of change.

Southeast Asia’s Emerging Middle Power

Manila will celebrate its fifth commemoration of The Hague Ruling on July 12, 2021, which invalidated China’s historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the debunked nine-dash line. The 501-page milestone decision explicitly cited China’s violations of sovereign rights in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone by interfering with fishing and petroleum exploration, building man-made islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. This meritorious award has placed the talented Southeast Asian state in its emergent middle power position by contracting the global reorder of hegemonic powers in the region.

But while the Philippines has won unanimously a maritime entitlement, placing Filipinos’ brilliant legal minds at the front of lawfare, China remains dominant and indignant on the Philippines’ claimed features in the West Philippine Sea. In a toss of tight competition of power that controls the entire South China Sea and which country gets more resources, it clearly shows that China scores higher and its actions redound to its clever grand strategy with ease despite inflicting harm to the marine environment and distorting maritime rules-based order.

In 2019, the Philippine Navy began to build up a defense posture through an acquisition of two missile-capable frigates armed with sensors and weapons launched on its 121st founding anniversary to bring into the high seas dignified surface-to-air missiles patrol ships. The realization came after a series of maritime humiliation and insecurities it experienced from the 1995 Chinese structures on Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff, and the March 2021’s naval tussle in the Whitsun Reef. The three major maritime and territorial insults to the Philippines’ national sovereignty and territorial integrity highlights the importance for the passage of the Revised AFP Modernization Act of 2012, replacing the original version crafted 17 years in between, which are currently implemented to achieve a modest potential in 2028, transforming into a respected maritime power in the region.

The only recourse Beijing is good at comes by exerting a hard power through saber-rattle in the disputed islands showcasing the use of force over the presence of hundreds of Chinese military militia near and within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China's success in building the sea wall contributed to the massive terraforming accomplishments that buoyed up in the expansive Chinese Lake conjoined with militarized acumen and economic perspicacity. But beyond that, Beijing cannot displace the spell of Manila’s ascent to becoming a middle power, given its imperative soft power in invoking the strength of international law and the coalesce it may possess through the ‘whole-of-alliance’ approach with a preferential treatment that Washington and its Western allies can cordially accord to Manila.

This strategic acquiescence that the Philippines enjoys as an emergent middle power combines economic gains and simultaneous military buildup leading one to coin the term, “Philippinedization,” which may well be appropriate especially in light of the historic Hague ruling that Duterte temporarily sets aside. It is a process whereby a weaker state, backed by a powerful country, goes through great lengths in temporarily refraining from opposing a neighboring great power by resorting to economic and diplomatic rapprochements at the strategic level but strengthening its national security infrastructure on the operational level with an eye for potential conflict in the foreseeable future.


Dr. Chester Cabalza is the President and Founder of the International Development and Security Cooperation. Formerly the Executive Fellow of the Council of Fellows and previously the Vice President for the Center of Research and Strategic Studies at the Development Academy of the Philippines.

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