ASIA

The Future of the Philippines

The following is an excerpt from the final chapter of The Making of the Modern Philippines: Pieces of a Jigsaw State (Bloomsbury Academic) by Philip Bowring, the co-founder of the Asia Sentinel, which was published earlier this month. A review of the book can be found here.

By some measures, the Philippines needs a revolution, to throw off the old elites, end monopolies, open up to foreign competition, prioritize education, eliminate large-scale smuggling, and enforce taxes. The weakness of a divided left plus the economic growth, however unequal, in the pre-pandemic years kept popular discontent well- contained with some progress in poverty reduction and income transfers to the poor.

Things for the masses were not getting worse and the urban middle classes who had driven the EDSA Revolution in 1986 were doing fine. The future may well offer more of the same, with Overseas Filipino Workers, remittances, and business process outsourcing (BPO) all continuing to provide foreign exchange and jobs while progress in infrastructure remains underpinned by foreign support. However, the world is changing too so continued growth of those two earners is not assured as demand from traditional labor importers in the Middle East stagnates and lack of skills limits upgrading needed in the BPO world.

The country’s biggest challenge, though, is not to export more people but to make better use at home of the tens of millions in informal jobs in cities and low-productivity agriculture. Meanwhile, rebellion simmers on the margin of society and could yet grow much bigger again as in the latter Marcos days.

Political and economic domination by a China seeking regional hegemony is clearly a longer-term threat to the legacies of former foreign rulers – Christianity from Spain and a political and legal system from the US. China’s relative economic power is not likely to wane soon while that of others such as Japan, the US, and Australia may do. Yet with a foreign policy driven by strategic thinking, not by petty and often ignorant local politicians, the Philippines can be part of a non-military pact with significant neighbors, notably Indonesia and Vietnam in limiting China’s ambitions, making Beijing pay a high international price for seeking to dominate the seas and be the ‘Godfather’ to the region. Greater awareness of its cultural links to the wider Malay world would also help, reducing its sense of distance from predominantly Muslim neighbors while diluting its sense of attachment to an American and Hispanic past.

Philippine historiography often has a distinctly nationalist tone but more as a reaction to Western imperialism than to a pre-colonial identity when there was no such place as the Philippines but, like Indonesia and Malaysia, a collection of lands of various kings, sultans, and chiefs speaking related languages and trading and sometimes warring with each other.

There remains a lot to do in improving relations with non-Chinese neighbors. Apart from occasional squabbles about Sabah, there were few specific aggravations, but little effort was made to cultivate them and they often seem baffled by a Philippines unsure of its position as a significant Asian country. Duterte’s backtracking from the stunning 2016 victory over China stunned fellow littoral states which could take advantage of the ruling themselves. Future presidents may well come back to the ruling as a cornerstone of policy but will need to see issues in regional terms not simply as a China-US struggle for hegemony.

General lack of interest in foreign and neighboring country affairs was reflected in media coverage as well as in the simplistic notions of provincial politicians. Manila would have done well to look to Hanoi for guidance in balancing the defense of its territorial rights with economic ties with China.

Meanwhile, Japan received modest attention in spite of its far larger role than China in private investment and aid for infrastructure. While the importance of China trade was much touted, the reality was that the merchandise trade is massively in China’s favor while the Philippines’ remittance and service earnings are almost entirely from elsewhere. In strategic terms, China may seem like an ever-rising power which has made some progress if making the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. However, US power in the western Pacific will remain formidable for the foreseeable future and find plenty of formal and informal allies among medium-sized states wary of China. US failures in the Middle East, and the Trump era, dented America’s regional standing but at the same time focused more US attention on China’s east Asian ambitions and its anti-China Quad group (with India, Japan, and Australia) finds many quiet sympathizers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Korea.

As for the Philippines’ military, though a proud and relatively disciplined force, it has spent 70 years fighting its own people. Its background political influence increased under Duterte and was a factor in persuading a reluctant president to renew the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. Although still a small force and one yet to attempt a coup, an unstable regional outlook could draw the Philippine military closer to politics at home as well as in facing a more nationalist China under President Xi Jinping.

The raised level of unpredictability over Taiwan as well as the nine-dash line claim made it more important than ever for the Philippines to maximize its diplomatic efforts to protect common interests while continuing to cooperate with the US and others on military issues. The Philippines has few natural resources to attract the Chinese but it does have a crucial position on the Luzon Strait as well as owning (in theory) more EEZ rights in the South China Sea than any other littoral state.

For the longer term, it is possible to see demographic issues coming to play a bigger role in China relations – a fast-aging China looking for man and (especially) women power which would in time make it, not the Middle East or US, a golden opportunity for Philippine job seekers, and hence an income source for the nation. At the same time, millions of Chinese might like to follow the example of many South Koreans and seek homes and retirement in a warmer climate with lower living costs.

Of course, China itself may prefer to avoid either importing labor or exporting retirees, Filipinos may resist an influx of Chinese, even old ones, but the issue of people movement could become a key influence on the direction of China relations.

The decline in the fertility rate has been quickening but there are still two decades ahead when pressure to create jobs for school leavers will remain severe. However, the working percentage of the population will rise, and an increased share of national income should be able to go to education and investment. Further increasing labor export generates short- term gains to income but takes pressure off the need for getting work at home for those who have become remittance reliant. Despite much rhetoric about the plight of the poor, politics is seldom about specific measures other than the targeted support under the Pantawid program. A more radical approach involving higher taxes and more competition runs up against the realities of the social and political power structure.

That might change under a leader with a radical agenda and backed by populist sentiment but none has yet to emerge. Nor as yet does the Philippines have, for good or ill, a movement similar to Peronism in Argentina or to countries in Latin America and the Middle East with histories of left-leaning generals with populist slogans backed by an army. Even the old left might abandon outdated slogans and find a leader who can galvanize the masses.

There is no doubt that Filipinos remain eager participants in elections at every level even though choices are mostly limited to dynasts and media celebrities. They are proof that for all its faults and divides, the Philippines mostly remains an open and freewheeling society despite the efforts of would-be autocrats for executive rule and a populist desire among many for a ‘strong leader’ in the Marcos/Duterte mold who promises (but does not deliver) more effective government.

For what it is worth, for all its myriad problems of poverty and lawlessness, the nation regularly rates much higher in the Global Happiness Index than its socio-economic position would suggest. Foreign countries welcoming its workers and migrants seem to agree.

The nation, like its archipelago, is made up of many odd-shaped pieces which make a whole. Its 500-year history is a bond of identity but also a curse of continuity of a socio-political structure in need of a shake-up which would enable its people’s talents to be better reflected in the state of the nation. More than anything it needs stronger state institutions, particularly honest and independent courts and genuine separation of executive and legislative powers, not ones at the mercy of dynasts and populists. Fewer but stronger local government units would help as would stable parties and the supremacy of policy issues over patronage. The 2022 election was seen by many as a test of the nation’s ability to modernize itself.

Seventy- five years after independence, the Philippines is searching for a political answer to its relative failure to keep up with the economic and social progress of its once poorer neighbors. Its problem is the very continuity of the social history of 500 years, binding the nation together but impeding its ability to change, but it is also a young country with a median age of twenty- six and hence has a greater potential than its neighbors for positive change.


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