Noting the continuation of maritime security issues in Southeast Asian waters and the intensification of tensions among powers, Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation organized the webinar, “Southeast Asia’s Maritime Capacity Building: Recent Developments and Implications for the Philippines”, to discuss how Southeast Asian states are perceiving these developments, how these perceptions are informing their maritime capacity and capability developments, and how the Philippines is responding to these issues.
Mr. Gilang Kembara from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Indonesia, noted the three main factors that inform maritime capacity building in Southeast Asia: (1) domestic, economically-linked factors such as illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, smuggling and drug trafficking, and the poaching and harvesting of protected species; (2) an “arms catch-up” informed by the need to replace and modernize aging and outdated equipment, as well as the need to be on part with neighboring states in terms of capabilities; and (3) prestige, where the need to showcase the country’s strength becomes more important than the particular than a particular capability gap that needs to be addressed.
Dr. Collin Koh of Rajaratnam School of International Studies discussed interesting points and misconceptions regarding the new AUKUS security arrangement, how it affects the current regional security architecture, and how this can affect the ASEAN-centered architecture and individual member states. He noted that AUKUS only builds upon already existing bilateral and multilateral security relations, and that these developments were brought about by the observed limitations and shortcomings of the ASEAN-centered security architecture and its inability to address persisting security issues that undermine the region’s stability. Dr. Koh believes that nuclear proliferation concerns in the region, though legitimate, may be overblown, and that the real risks to the region would be more operational in nature, considering the increased military presence in the region’s waters amidst a persistent strategic trust deficit and the lack of mechanisms to avoid and mitigate incidents.
Dr. Chester Cabalza of the International Development and Security Cooperation discussed how the pandemic has affected Philippine defense modernization. Dr. Cabalza noted that despite the redirection of resources and focus on pandemic response, the armed forces have continued to secure its presence in specific areas of interests. Acquisitions still proceeded in spite of the pandemic and infrastructures and presence were enhanced in key areas like the Kalayaan Island Group and Fuga Island in the Luzon Strait.
Rear Admiral Rommel Ong (ret), from the Ateneo School of Government, gave an overview of the Philippine Navy’s modernization efforts, the backdrop concerns of China’s own naval modernization, and where the Philippines figures in China’s strategies in accessing the western Pacific. This necessitates the Philippines to base its modernization efforts based on these recalibrated assessments of security threat and challenge to the Philippines and acquire capabilities that address these new and emerging threats. Admiral Ong also noted the many possible strategies for cooperating with other parties to address the security challenges.
Rear Admiral Rommel Jason Galang (ret) provided an overview of the Philippine submarine acquisition project, providing the rationale and thinking behind the Submarine Capability Development Strategy of the Philippine Navy, which he headed during his term as the Director of the Naval Research and Technology Development Center. Admiral Galang presented the national and maritime interests that informed their drafting of the strategy, as well as the specific maritime security challenges and capability gaps that are to be addressed by the acquisition of submarine capability. He also presented the challenges in moving towards acquisition, including the financial and logistical challenges that the program will entail, and how these balances against the gains to be had from the project. Admiral Galang noted that the main strategic purpose of acquiring a small number of submarines for the Philippine Navy would be to shift the calculus of would-be aggressors enough to the point that they are deterred from incursions in Philippine waters.
The open forum discussed issues arising from the discussion, including the role of possible external partners in boosting the Philippines’ capabilities, the role and prospects of multilateral security arrangements in resolving and mitigating conflict in maritime flash points, and the influence and lessons learned from the experience of the submarine programs of other Southeast Asian operators for the Philippines.