There are 66 months to go for the Marcos Jr. administration; 58 months to go for the Xi administration, now on its third five-year term. There are 24 months to go for the Biden administration. Sixty-six months to go to complete Horizon 3 and the backlog of Horizons 1 and 2 of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) modernization. Fifty-six months to go for the centenary of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). What lies in store for the Philippines within that period of time in terms of human and ecological security, the economy, defense, and diplomacy?
The world is currently transitioning from low intensity conflicts to hybrid wars among the great powers. We’re entering a vortex of epic proportions, bookended by a largely anticipated global recession and a rapidly deteriorating security environment. Despite the warning signals, we still have insufficient safety nets and protective measures to mitigate the risk of collateral damage. And there’s no excuse. After all, we’ve had all the time in the world to do so when the US defense shield was removed in 1991 after its bases in the Philippines were shut down.
In 2022, we saw war risk rising around the world. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drew the indirect involvement of US-led NATO in terms of intelligence, arms, and training support. Russia’s allies are Belorussia, Iran, North Korea, and China. Iran is pursuing its nuclear program; backing non-state violent actors in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon; and applying coercive tactics in the Persian Gulf. North Korea has resumed its belligerent actions around the Korean Peninsula. The nuclear option, should deterrence fail, is on the table.
China is tightening the screws with its anti-access, area denial (A2AD) gray zone tactics. Its presence is now being felt in the South Pacific. Its war machines routinely penetrate Taiwan’s air and sea borders. Swarms of its Maritime Militia, backed by its Coast Guard and Navy, increasingly intrude, intimidate, and snatch sovereign entitlements elsewhere in the region. They play “chicken” in the air and at sea to test America’s strategic resolve and patience.
Between now and 2027, Xi Jinping has set and articulated the following goals:
• Intensify troop training and enhance combat preparedness across the board, strengthen all-around military governance, and consolidate and enhance integrated national strategies and strategic capabilities.
• Innovate the guidance of military strategy, develop strategies and tactics of people’s war, build a strong system of strategic deterrent forces, raise the presence of combat forces in new domains and of new qualities, and deeply promote combat-oriented military training.
Whether one likes him or not, he has transformed the PLA into a modern strategic combat force. Security analysts believe that he’ll forcibly take Taiwan on or before the centennial of the PLA’s founding in 2027. Should that happen, it could simultaneously wrest strategic control of the countries comprising the First Island Chain. With what China has accomplished under Xi’s watch so far, the Chinese Communist Party-People’s Liberation Army (CCP-PLA) clearly possess the mindset, aptitude, and skills set to ensure China’s defense and security. But so do the US, Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Australia to help protect the Indo-Pacific.
The latest US security review sees the People’s Republic of China as harboring the intent and, increasingly, the capacity to reshape the international order and tilt the global playing field to its benefit. The US, on its end, affirms its commitment to “responsibly manage its long-term competition with China” while reaching out to nations who share its core belief that the rules-based order must be the basis for global peace and prosperity. Sadly, while mouthing peace, their war preparations are actually drawing them farther away from it.
Even if, for argument’s sake, both sides don’t want war, they’re actually on a collision course, pushing countries around us to accelerate their defense build-up. They have one thing in common: they have the right mindset, aptitude, and skill sets to act in their national interest. In our case, for far too long, that has been our Achilles heel. There are too many disablers within our corridors of power that sacrifice national security in favor of their selfish interests. Our dismal state of unpreparedness keeps us vulnerable and exposed to the clear and present danger that surrounds us. We’ve squandered so much time already.
In 2013, the China News Service, China’s second largest state-run media outlet, published an article entitled “Six wars China is sure to fight in the next 50 years.” It alluded to China’s pride, shredded after centuries of defeat and embarrassment. China has long been preparing itself for war, preferably without firing a shot. However, its offensive firepower isn’t there for display. At some point, it will be used when necessary to wage:
1. The war to unify Taiwan (2020-2025)
2. The war to recover the various islands of the South China Sea (2025-2030)
3. The war to recover southern Tibet (2035-2040)
4. The war to recover Diaoyutai and the Ryukyus (2040-2045)
5. The war to unify Outer Mongolia (2045-2050)
6. The war to recover the territory seized by Russia (2055-2060)
China is a cunning master of timing, sophisticated cost-benefit analysis, and risk assessment. It strives to win by applying “unrestricted warfare” through superior advantage in diplomatic warfare, proxy warfare, cyberwarfare, currency warfare, trade warfare, psychological warfare, electronic warfare, computer network operations warfare, espionage, etc. It may bide its time or stage swift blows at an adversary’s strategic points of weakness to kill its will to resist. That’s what we need to address to ably defend ourselves and be a reliable allied partner.
There’s so much to do in so short a time. We need to switch to good governance; develop our own A2AD strategies; restructure the armed services to fight a hybrid war; find new ways of funding modernization and sustainment; adopt enabling laws, rules, and regulations that facilitate emergency procurement of essential assets; establish a technology-based defense industry; invest in strategic stockpiles. Time will tell if our entire national leadership finally scrambles to make up for lost time.
The last thing we need is to shamefully get caught, once again, with our pants down.
This article reflects the personal opinion of the author and does not reflect the official stand of the Management Association of the Philippines or MAP.
Rafael “Raffy” M. Alunan III is a former governor of the MAP. He is the chair of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, the vice-chair of Pepsi-Cola Products Philippines, Inc., and sits on the boards of other companies as an independent director.