As the world’s militaries draw on their HADR capabilities (humanitarian assistance and disaster response) during climate change-related disasters, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has kept up through its baseline of military hardware that it maintained in response to decades of internal security challenges.

Even with the Revised AFP Modernization Program (RAFPMP) in full swing, indications exist that multi-role defense acquisitions continue to be the running thread in the AFP’s buildup, taking into account the country’s misfortune as a geographical pathway for super-typhoons that compounds both its internal and external security challenges. The Philippine Navy’s strategic sealift vessels, for instance, appears to have gained Congressional approval due to its secondary applicability to search-and-rescue missions, medical civic aid, and most of all, HADR that simultaneously satisfies Philippine international commitments to climate change.

The Philippine government’s decades of neglect of its own military, however, remains fresh in memory. Hence, the question is whether it’s only a matter of time that the AFP will once again succumb to another agonizing period of decline.

Riding the wave of the international fad that is HADR, nonetheless, may well be a starting point in order to reverse such propensity on the part of Manila. Given the hierarchy of threats that the country is facing—first, China; second, communist and Islamic terrorism; and third, illegal drugs—the AFP must innovate in terms of its policy agendas as a way to maintain the strategic centrality of its military modernization. China topping the list is supported by the steady increase in the defense budget under the RAFPMP’s second horizon that amounts to a yearly average of USD1.1-billion until 2022, bringing 2018’s total defense spending at USD3.7-billion—a figure on par with the country’s benign rival, Malaysia.

Poking the stick on Beijing, however, is a foolhardy option even as it undermines Indo-Pacific stability. Hence, operating under the threshold of conflict and not directly identifying China as a primary competitor—much less an adversary—is a foremost condition if the AFP is to truly attain the minimum credible defense posture it is aiming for through its modernization programs.

But a serious weakness in this approach is precisely the lack of a worthy adversary that could bring out the best in the AFP as a warfighting organization. Over half a century of fighting fellow Filipinos along ideological lines have robbed the AFP of both confidence and capacity to give any external aggressor a true contest in conventional warfare. Yet, identifying a literal adversary is still out of the question not only because it goes against the Philippine Constitution that renounces war as an instrument of policy but, as previously stated, provoking the second largest economy in the world is foolhardy at worst and misguided at best.

What has not been tried is the explicit identification of climate change as a thematic strategic adversary that reconstitutes climate change-related disasters under the umbrella of national security. Similar to how a warming planet provided the political capital in order to realize long-deferred military acquisition plans, narrowing down the country’s national security focus to an overarching strategic threat that is climate change may be the decisive theme that will sustain Philippine defense modernization.

Modeling China’s grand strategy of a “peaceful rise” can also add to the long-term comprehensive approach that Manila can develop in strengthening its defense infrastructure through the cover of climate change. China wouldn’t have managed to get to this point where it is now entering the beginning stages of a direct challenge to the most powerful nation on earth without a delaying strategy that avoided unnecessarily provoking the United States.

Manila, in similar fashion, has been understandably circumspect about identifying China’s military and paramilitary presence as the enemy at the gates within Philippine territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. But instead of just letting the RAFPMP play out that may fall victim to future political leadership once again abandoning Philippine national security interests, the AFP must be the vehicle for Manila to explicitly identify a thematic enemy. It must become the proactive focus of its institutional energy to continue building up a multi-role Philippine military that can gradually pose a viable threat to any potential foreign aggressor.

Identifying climate change as the strategic adversary—albeit a thematic one—not only ensures that Philippine defense modernization programs keep moving forward, but it allows the AFP to substantially gain strength in peacetime without provoking Beijing. Militarizing the environment then becomes an ethical approach in upholding Philippine national security interests over the long-term, and pursuing multi-role modernization within Constitutional conditions for going to war and preparing for it.

About the author: Mark Payumo is a former Philippine Army Special Forces Officer and a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy. His research centers around Indo-Pacific security. Special thanks to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs’ Asia Dialogues Program and the Henry Luce Foundation for supporting this research on climate change in the Philippines.

Mark Payumo
Mark Payumo is a freelance security analyst who is a former Philippine Army Special Forces Officer and a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.