Will the Philippines’ Next President Maintain Aquino’s Reform Momentum?

Will the Philippines’ Next President Maintain Aquino’s Reform Momentum?
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, sixth from left, during the announcement of the senatorial slate for the 2016 elections, Quezon city, Philippines Oct. 12, 2015 (AP photo by Aaron Favila).

The Philippines’ upcoming presidential election in May comes at a critical time for Southeast Asia’s second-most-populous country and fifth-largest economy. After decades of anemic growth rates, the Philippines seems to have begun to turn a corner over the past six years under reform-minded President Benigno Aquino III. Yet as Filipinos prepare to go to the polls, it is unclear if the next government will be able to both sustain the progress made thus far as well as confront challenges old and new in the political, economic and security realms.

Breaking With the Past

Although the Philippines has been a democracy since the fall of dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, its politics still tends to be characterized by powerful dynasties, widespread corruption and, in some cases, intimidation and violence. Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, had to put down several coups during her tenure and was charged with electoral fraud in 2011 and corruption in 2012. She came to power in 2001 following the ouster of former President Joseph Estrada, who was overthrown following massive street protests and subsequently imprisoned for corruption before mounting a failed bid for the presidency in 2010. He has been mayor of the country’s capital, Manila, since 2013.

Yet under Aquino—a fourth-generation politician whose mother, Corazon Aquino, served as president for six years after leading historic demonstrations that led to Marcos’ ouster in 1986—significant progress has been made in politics and governance. According to the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators survey, the Philippines has improved its grades in all six categories from 2010 to 2015: political stability and absence of violence, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, rule of law and corruption. Local ections have seen less fraud and violence, and the government has worked closely with judicial bodies to try to better address serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture and enforced disappearances, which were rampant during the Arroyo years.

Meanwhile, a crackdown on corruption has begun to pay dividends. Accordingly, Filipino and foreign investors alike have been encouraged by efforts to strengthen transparency in budgeting processes, ensure competitive bidding in procurement, and publicize drafts of the national budget. High-profile arrests have also been made, including of senators, a former police chief and even Arroyo herself. According to Ombudswoman Conchita Carpio-Morales, corruption cases against high-ranking officials and their associates increased from 189 in 2009 to 961 in 2013—the most in nearly two decades. As a result of these efforts, the Philippines rose from 134th in 2010 to 85th in 2015 in Transparency International’s widely cited Corruption Perception Index, a significant step up in a short period of time.

Despite those advances, the country has a long way to go. Corruption is still endemic, as evidenced by a massive scandal uncovered in 2013 that involved the widespread misuse by legislators of the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), a discretionary fund for development projects. While this kind of malfeasance is by no means new, the scale of the findings was nonetheless shocking: According to the Commission on Audit, 12 senators and 180 representatives were implicated, involving 772 projects amounting to more than 6 billion pesos, or over $130 million. Amid the ensuing popular uproar, Aquino himself was accused of shielding some of his congressional allies by limiting the scope of the investigations.

Suffice it to say, such incidents have fed into popular cynicism among citizens who are no strangers to corrupt government. For instance, a poll conducted by Radio Veritas in 2015 found that despite the progress the current government had made thus far, 46 percent of Filipinos believed it had failed to curb corruption, while only 13 percent thought it had been successful.

The depth of the political class’s commitment to the country’s democratic institutions is also a cause of popular concern. That should come as no surprise considering the inability of democratic institutions—ranging from the Supreme Court to the Commission on Elections—to play their role as a check on the executive branch in recent years: They failed to resolve the impeachment crisis of 2000-2001 that preceded Estrada’s ouster, and were routinely manipulated by Arroyo to maintain power. When the Aquino government openly challenged the Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that its own Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP)—effort to speed up government spending—was unconstitutional because it had bypassed the normal appropriations process, many worried that the president might openly undermine the power of the judiciary, potentially leading to a clash between the two branches of government and perhaps even a constitutional crisis.

Similarly, when Aquino floated the possibility in August 2014 that he might consider running for a second presidential term, which would have required amending the post-Marcos constitution that allows only a single 6-year term, he faced popular opposition from a country still haunted by memories of Marcos’ dictatorial rule and had to quickly back away from the idea. A poll released by survey firm Pulse Asia shortly after Aquino proposed seeking re-election showed that over 60 percent of those surveyed were opposed, in spite of his otherwise high popularity ratings. Arroyo had also notoriously dropped her 2002 promise to not seek a full 6-year term after serving the remainder of Estrada’s term following his ouster; she subsequently proposed changing the constitution to allow for yet another term before encountering widespread opposition, including from the powerful Catholic Church. Though concerns over Aquino’s trial balloon never really materialized and paled in comparison to the transgressions of his predecessors, they nonetheless revealed the fragility of democracy in the country.

Disastrous Governance

Meanwhile, confidence in government effectiveness has been periodically undermined by the sluggish reaction of authorities to specific crises. The national government response to Typhoon Haiyan, which killed at least 6,300 people in November 2013, making it the Philippines’ deadliest typhoon on record, is a case in point. Though the devastation was unprecedented and coordination issues with local authorities were compounded by political tensions—the mayor of Tacloban City, which was struck particularly hard, was former first lady Imelda Marcos’ nephew and therefore Aquino’s political enemy—the Philippine government was also accused of being too slow to respond and too quick to lay the blame at the feet of others.

Candles are lit to commemorate the second anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan,
Manila, Nov. 7, 2015 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).

Another incident in this vein was the botched counterterrorism raid in Mamasapano in January 2015, in which 44 members of the Philippine National Police’s elite Special Action Force (SAF) were killed in an operation targeting wanted rebels in Mindanao, the Philippines’ main southern island. The operation ostensibly aimed to arrest or kill certain members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF)—a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an armed secessionist insurgency—but escalated into a bloody firefight with both the BIFF and MILF. The incident, which marked the biggest loss of elite government forces in the history of the Philippines, inflamed popular opinion. In a televised address following the raid, Aquino admitted that there was an apparent lack of coordination between the government and the MILF—with which Manila has signed a peace deal, since stalled in the legislature, in part due to the incident—but also among government agencies. Following the massacre, it came to light that Aquino and police chief Alan Purisima, who was subsequently relived of his duties, were aware of the operation, while the deputy director general of the SAF, the secretary of interior and local government officials had not been informed about it. The incident demonstrated a lack of interagency cooperation and the politicization of the country’s institutions, both familiar features that often undermine government effectiveness in the Philippines.

Rule of law and human rights issues also continue to be a concern. Even though new incidences of extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances have decreased, the impunity enjoyed by the security forces remains a problem that has gone largely unaddressed. Few convictions have been secured for past abuses, and those that have been handed down took much longer than they should have. According to Task Force Usig, the main arm of the Philippine National Police in charge of investigating extrajudicial killings, as of May 2015 the government had secured only one conviction for the killing of activists out of the 130 such cases that it had recorded since 2001. As for the murder of journalists, 51 cases were recorded from 2001 to May 2015, only eight of which resulted in convictions.

Similar issues have affected even high-profile cases. Take, for instance, the so-called Maguindanao massacre: Fifty-eight individuals, including dozens of journalists, were murdered in Maguindanao province, also in Mindanao, back in November 2009. The victims were on their way to file a certificate of candidacy for Esmael Mangudadatu, who was challenging the son of Maguindanao’s then-Gov. Andal Ampatuan Sr.—a member of one of Mindanao’s leading Muslim political clans—in upcoming elections for governor. Though the incident was labeled the worst act of election violence in Philippine history and the single deadliest incident for journalists the world had known until then, the Philippine judiciary has yet to secure the conviction of even one primary defendant thus far. In November 2015, members of the Department of Justice admitted that they were no longer confident about securing any convictions before Aquino’s term ends, despite the president’s promise to do so. The lack of justice for the victims of the Maguindanao massacre, more than six years after the incident occurred, is yet another indication of the work that remains to be done in strengthening the rule of law in the Philippines.

The Philippines’ next president must be prepared to tackle deep-seated impunity for abuses by state security forces and the corrupt and politicized criminal justice system.

And although the number of serious human rights violations has dropped during Aquino’s administration, “ongoing killings of prominent activists and the lack of successful prosecutions mean there’s nothing to prevent an upsurge of abuses in the future,” Phelim Kine, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, warned in January. “The Philippines’ next president must be prepared to tackle deep-seated impunity for abuses by state security forces and the corrupt and politicized criminal justice system.”

Kine’s remarks underscore the fact that, in addition to the daunting work ahead, the positive reforms made so far could be reversed under a future president. This is not merely an abstract concern. One of the presidential candidates, current Vice President Jejomar Binay, faces a wide range of corruption allegations that suggest he would be unlikely to continue the anti-corruption crackdown. Another, Rodrigo Duterte, the mayor of Davao City in Mindanao, has not only been directly linked to brutal death squads that have claimed the lives of more than 1,000 people, but has pledged to execute 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in Manila Bay if he is elected. Duterte’s comments have only compounded fears that the country’s human rights abuses could rise under his tenure.

Economic Growth

Though the Philippines was considered the second-most developed country in East Asia after Japan during the post-World War II period, the country subsequently fell behind other developing countries in the region, with anemic growth rates leading it to be dubbed “the sick man of Asia.” Since the 1950s, the economy has been hampered by factors including endemic corruption, endless red tape, wide wealth and income disparities, brain drain, poor infrastructure and high rates of violent crime. Whereas other East Asian economies boasted average GDP growth rates of around 3-6 percent from 1960 up to 2008, the Philippines managed just 1.4 percent in the same period. The country was also unable to translate its modest growth into poverty reduction, with poverty actually rising in the 2000s, even as economic growth began to accelerate. As a result, seasoned observers continued to lament that the Philippines was performing at levels far below its potential.

But over the past few years, the Philippines has emerged as one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, second only to China. From 2010 to 2015, its economy grew by an average of 6.2 percent per year, the briskest pace since the 1970s. These growth rates helped the country climb 33 places in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index during that period, the largest gain of any country ranked. The Philippines has also secured several key sovereign credit-rating upgrades and significantly boosted foreign direct investment, which rose to its highest level ever recorded in the country’s history in 2014. “The Philippines is no longer the sick man of East Asia, but the rising tiger,” World Bank country director Motoo Konishi declared during the Philippines Development Forum in Davao City in February 2013.

This change is largely due to ambitious economic reforms the government has pursued since Aquino entered office. In addition to rooting out corruption, Aquino’s government cut red tape, more than doubled government spending on infrastructure, and modernized the country’s health and education systems, thereby tangibly improving public welfare. His administration has also undertaken reforms long called for by investors at home as well as abroad, lowering business costs, entering into free trade agreements with European countries, and expressing interest in the high-standard, U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade pact. According to the Joint Foreign Chambers of Commerce of the Philippines, of the 462 reform recommendations proposed by its members in 2010 when the Aquino government took office, 333 of them—around 75 percent—were considered active or progressing by the end of 2015, an impressive record.

Yet problems remain. The chief criticism is that the growth the country has experienced has not been inclusive. Despite the Aquino administration’s battle cry of “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap”—when there is no corruption, there will be no poverty—and policies like a conditional cash-transfer program targeting lower-income households, the most recent data released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) suggested that 25.8 percent of Filipinos were living below the poverty line in 2012, or just 0.8 percent less than in 2009, the year before Aquino came to power. Similarly, official statistics suggest that unemployment continues to hover at around 6 percent, the highest level among Southeast Asian countries. And according to measures like the Gini coefficient, a ratio of income distribution within a country, inequality has not discernibly improved. Cielito Habito, a former socioeconomic planning secretary and now an economics professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, told a symposium in September 2015 that the richest 1 percent of Filipinos account for 60 percent of the country’s GDP in an economy that is “narrow, shallow and hollow.”

ThePhilippines climbed 33 places in the World Economic Forum’s global competitiveness index from 2010 to 2015, the largest gain of any country ranked.

This decades-old criticism reflects the structure of the Philippine economy as well as the shape of the reforms that have been undertaken under Aquino. As the Asian Development Bank noted in its Country Partnership Strategy for the Philippines from 2011-2016, in other Asian countries, where decades of economic growth have been translated to gains for low-income groups, roughly every 1 percent of GDP growth results in 1-2 percent poverty reduction; the Philippines has long bucked that trend. That is a function of several structural issues that the country’s economy faces, including the dominance of an oligarchic economic elite, but also a high birth rate—rooted in the Philippines’ deeply religious society—that continues to be a drag on employment for a country of 100 million people.

But recent policies have played a role as well. For instance, while Philippine economic reforms have largely targeted the services sector and industry, which make up the bulk of the economy, they have largely neglected agriculture, which accounts for the remaining 11.3 percent of it and employs about 30 percent of the population. This is despite the fact that poverty in the Philippines has a strong rural and agricultural dimension, with 70 percent of the poor residing in rural areas and about 66 percent working in agriculture. PSA Data also show that despite attempts to introduce some reforms in agriculture, the government has missed its growth targets for the sector each year from 2010 to 2015. As a result of flawed policies, like a goal to achieve rice self-sufficiency, as well as the lack of any significant progress on genuine agrarian land reform, the Aquino government has largely failed to make inroads in the agriculture sector. Arsenio M. Balisacan, chair of the Philippine Competition Commission, calculates that in order to reduce poverty, the agricultural sector must grow at an annual average of 3-4 percent in the next two decades, stressing the “urgent need to rethink the development strategy for this sector.”

Beyond the problem of inclusiveness, some much-needed reforms remain incomplete, with infrastructure prominent among them. The Philippines has long had one of the poorest infrastructures in the region, as illustrated by its congested airports, snarling traffic jams and slow Internet. Improving the country’s infrastructure is also central to its future growth rates. Indeed, a recent study by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded that sustained improvements to public infrastructure coupled with reduced inefficiencies could boost growth to double-digit levels.

Since 2010, the Philippine government has increased infrastructure spending and nurtured a favorable environment for investment, including by revising guidelines and creating a public-private partnerships (PPP) center to provide coordination, monitoring, advice and facilitation for such projects. But weak implementation capacity, legal disputes and other inefficiencies have led to an inability to translate that spending into contracts and projects. In its 2016 outlook for Asian economies, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concluded that the Philippine PPP program for infrastructure “appears to have lost momentum.”

There is also uncertainty about the country’s future economic outlook. The most obvious concern is whether key reforms will be sustained following elections in May. Aquino himself admitted to a CEO forum at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Manila in November 2015 that moving the country to a higher growth path on a sustainable basis will be “very dependent on the president that follows us.”

Beyond the domestic environment, as the Philippine economy becomes more integrated into the regional and global economies, its growth prospects will also increasingly be tied to what happens outside its borders. Since the majority of Philippine trade is still within East Asia, the chief concerns in this vein will be China’s slowdown and the continued economic gloom in Japan. And while economic integration within Southeast Asia offers the prospect of a large collective trading and investment market in the distant future, for now the so-called ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), which came into effect this year, is in fact far from being a reality.

Outside of Southeast Asia, trouble also looms globally in 2016 and beyond. Downside risks for global economic growth, including a general slowdown in key emerging market economies, lower commodity prices, and expected adjustments to U.S. monetary policy, could impact the Philippines. The Philippines may be partly shielded from some of these factors due to its economic strengths, most notably its sturdy domestic consumption base; steady remittance flows from its diaspora, which account for around 10 percent of GDP; and its status as an oil consumer rather than a producer, in the context of falling oil prices. But it will not be immune to them. Several key indicators, including exports and foreign direct investment, slipped in 2015 and could continue to do so in 2016, with significant implications for the country’s growth trajectory. In March, the IMF lowered its economic growth forecast for the Philippines to 6 percent in 2016 and 6.2 percent in 2017, down from 6.7 percent in 2015.

People rummage through the debris after Typhoon Rammasun, Batangas city, Philippines, July 17, 2014 (AP photo by Bullit Marquez).

Furthermore, the Philippines’ geography makes it particularly vulnerable to the El Niño phenomenon, a complex and recurring meteorological pattern in the Pacific that causes global changes in temperature and rainfall. The phenomenon, considered to be severe this year, significantly affects agriculture-dependent countries like the Philippines, including by triggering droughts that drag down economic growth and cause food shortages that in turn raise domestic prices on basic foodstuffs. According to Emerson Palad, the agriculture undersecretary for field operations, the 2015-2016 El Niño cycle has already caused around 4.77 billion pesos—more than $103 million—in crop-production losses in 2015 and into the first two months of 2016, mostly to rice and corn. El Niño has been especially destructive in Mindanao, the country’s second-largest island that supplies more than 40 percent of its food, with tens of thousands of farmers affected by drought and pest infestation. And while El Niño’s peak is supposedly over, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration predicts that nearly 85 percent of the country could suffer drought conditions by April.

Security Affairs

Security-wise, the Philippines has been caught in a two-front war against a range of internal and external threats for decades. Internally, in addition to tackling frequent natural disasters, security forces have had to battle a host of insurgencies and armed nonstate actors, including the Communist Party of the Philippines New People’s Army (NPA), the terrorist-criminal Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and the Moro secessionist groups, chiefly the MILF. Meanwhile, externally, Manila has also faced a range of bilateral and transnational threats, ranging from unresolved territorial disputes in the South China Sea to piracy and smuggling. Managing these security challenges has not been easy, since the Philippines’ armed forces have long been and remain one of Asia’s weakest militaries.

Over the past five years, the Philippines has gone to some lengths to address some of these internal threats. Most notably, it signed a historic peace agreement with the MILF, the country’s largest insurgent group, in March 2014 to help end nearly a half-century of bloody conflict that had killed tens of thousands. Progress on ending this insurgency is critical, because confronting it has long been a drain on both the country’s economy and its defense budget. Meanwhile, Philippine security forces have also eroded the NPA’s capabilities, particularly with the arrest of several key leaders of the CPP. The group still remains a threat, but Philippine officials hope that a combination of military pressure as well as successful peace agreements with other groups may bring it back to the negotiating table after previous talks had failed. Efforts are also ongoing to degrade groups such as the ASG, including through closer security cooperation with neighboring Malaysia.

As it has dealt with these internal challenges, the Aquino administration has also tried to reorient the Philippine military toward external defense as well. Philippine defense spending increased 35 percent between 2010 and 2014, with the government seeking new fighter jets, frigates, helicopters, radars and base upgrades to protect its interests. The goal of its military modernization program, which runs until 2028, is to develop what Philippine military officials call a “minimum credible deterrent” to make any state think twice before attacking. Of particular concern is China, given Beijing’s growing maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea over the past few years; the Chinese seized Scarborough Shoal from Manila in 2012 and continue to harass Philippine vessels and aircraft operating in disputed waters, most recently in the Jackson Atoll in the Spratly Islands.

Managing security challenges has not been easy, since the Philippines armed forces have long been and remain one of Asia’s weakest militaries.

Realizing that developing its own capabilities alone will not be sufficient, Manila has also sought to strengthen its relationships with key partners and neighbors. Earlier this year, the Philippine Supreme Court upheld the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, a new defense pact initially inked in April 2014 that would strengthen Washington’s ability to assist its ally by giving U.S. troops and equipment wider access to Philippine military bases on a rotational basis. Manila has also tightened security links with other Asian nations including Japan, South Korea and Australia. For instance, in the case of Japan, the two countries sealed several defense agreements in 2015 that allow for the transfer of defense equipment and technology as well as more frequent joint exercises. Where possible, the Philippines has also looked to resolve outstanding sovereignty disputes with its neighbors, including the conclusion of negotiations over maritime boundaries with Indonesia in 2014 after nearly two decades of talks.

Nevertheless, significant security challenges persist. Much like in the economic domain, some of this is due to knotty issues that the government has begun to address but which remain unresolved. For instance, while concluding the initial peace agreement with the MILF was no doubt a historic achievement, the Philippine legislature has thus far not approved a key enabling law known as the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), which would implement the accord by establishing the Bangsamoro, the autonomous political entity in Mindanao that was the crux of the deal. The BBL has been under deliberation by lawmakers since 2014, but became highly controversial following the January 2015 clash in Mindanao mentioned earlier between security forces and Muslim insurgents, which led to the deaths of 44 Philippine commandos and sparked domestic outrage, even though both sides quickly worked to prevent the incident from escalating. As of now, it is unclear whether Aquino’s successor will be as committed to completing the peace process as he was.

The failure to secure peace in the southern Philippines could also potentially compound other security threats, particularly with the rise of the so-called Islamic State. As of now, Philippine security officials insist that there are no operational links between local insurgent groups and the Islamic State, and that the prospects of them developing are rather low due to a range of factors, including Philippine insurgents’ weak capacity, their internal divisions, the local nature of their goals, and their clan-based linkages. But while the MILF has explicitly denounced the Islamic State and would not allow the group to flourish under territory it controls, other groups have not been so clear about their allegiances.

As of January 2016, in fact, four groups, including the ASG and the BIFF, have joined forces and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. As long as the southern Philippines remains a contested, ungoverned space, it is difficult to entirely rule out the possibility for cross-fertilization of such groups. After all, the southern Philippines previously served as a training ground in the period after 9/11 for Jemaah Islamiyah, a group often loosely referred to as al-Qaida’s Southeast Asian offshoot.

Externally, sovereignty disputes remain unresolved and could also flare up. Apart from the South China Sea issue, which often dominates the headlines, another that is of particular concern is a dispute with Malaysia over Sabah, a state in eastern Malaysia that, along with parts of the southern Philippines, was historically ruled by the Sulu sultanate centuries ago. While the sultanate’s authority gradually faded, the Philippines has never formally dropped its claim to Sabah, leaving an opening for various actors and groups to exploit the issue, with potentially deadly consequences. For instance, in February 2013, hundreds of followers of a self-declared heir to the sultanate took over a village near Lahad Datu, in Malaysia, and tried to stake a claim to Sabah, resulting in clashes with Malaysian security forces that left more than 60 people dead. While the Philippine government condemned the invasion, Jejomar Binay, the current vice president and a presidential candidate, recently resurrected the issue by saying that as president he would pursue the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. His comments led Malaysia to summon the Philippine envoy in Kuala Lumpur and issue a stern statement, calling on its neighbor to take “more reasonable actions” to ensure the preservation of ties.

Meanwhile, although the Philippine security forces remain quite weak to confront these lingering challenges, boosting funding to address them on a sustainable basis poses a challenge of its own. Despite increases over the past few years, Philippine defense spending as a percentage of GDP has remained relatively constant at around 1 percent, one of the lowest ratios in Southeast Asia. If Manila truly wants to achieve minimum credible deterrence soon, it will need to not only sustain that level, which military officials have publicly called for, but increase it to at least 1.5 percent of GDP. Of course, the extent to which that is possible is partly dependent on whether the country can sustain the high economic growth rates it has witnessed over the past few years, which is hardly guaranteed.

Yet the challenge of funding the Philippine military involves not just budgeting, but how the defense budget is dispensed. For instance, despite spending increases from 2010 to 2015, the approval of key acquisitions has stalled under the Aquino administration for various political reasons. And while the government has rightly prioritized the navy and air force in its recent budgets, in line with a gradual shift toward a more external orientation, interservice rivalries and the appointment of military leaders with potentially diverging priorities could undermine that shift over the next few years. Other choices, such as the balance between acquiring aging or excess defense articles from allies and partners or purchasing new ones, will also affect various dimensions of the military modernization process.

With its turbulent politics, underperforming economy and weak security forces, the Philippines has been lagging behind some of its Asian neighbors for decades.

As Manila continues to build up its weak security forces, it is also unclear to what extent it can rely on the regional and international community to help it address its security challenges. For instance, Manila has not been shy about advocating its position on the South China Sea at meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But its efforts to gather regional consensus have been frustrated by other Southeast Asian states, notably Cambodia, that have close ties to China and are hesitant to take Beijing to task on its growing assertiveness in those waters. The ASEAN norm of operating by consensus has resulted in watered-down joint statements regarding Beijing’s provocations, and, in one case in 2012, the failure to issue a joint communiqué at all. Philippine officials have struggled to forge greater unity with the other three Southeast Asian claimant states in the South China Sea disputes—Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam—because of the different approach each country adopts on the issue.

Outside of Southeast Asia, things are equally murky with regard to reassurances from partners and allies. For instance, while the Philippines does have an alliance with the United States, Washington has not explicitly expanded the scope of the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty to cover the contested Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That leaves open the question of whether Manila can count on Washington’s help in a potential showdown with China over their territorial disputes. And though Manila has filed a case against China on the South China Sea with the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague and expects a favorable verdict, it is unclear how exactly this would boost its position apart from winning a legal argument. In any case, in response, China has not only said that it will not abide by the court’s decision, but has accelerated efforts to expand its de facto military control of the South China Sea before a verdict is issued, including by expanding radar facilities and increasingly harassing Philippine fishing vessels in disputed waters.

After Aquino

With its turbulent politics, underperforming economy and weak security forces, the Philippines has been lagging behind some of its Asian neighbors for decades. Though key reforms have been undertaken over the past few years to begin to address this, developing a robust, competitive and inclusive economy and a capable military are long-term projects that cannot be completed in a single presidential term. Furthermore, making progress on these goals will not be easy, since old problems remain while new challenges are also on the horizon. The task of the next Philippine president, whoever he or she may be, will be to ensure that the country remains on the same reform-minded trajectory to prepare it for the future in spite of these challenges, instead of returning to the past. Failing that, the Aquino years will likely be seen as a blip in an otherwise unremarkable story, rather than the beginning of a critical turn for the Philippines that is sustained well into the future.

Prashanth Parameswaran is an associate editor at The Diplomat magazine currently based in Washington, D.C., where he writes mostly on Southeast Asia and Asian security affairs. He is also a doctoral candidate in international affairs at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. You can follow him on Twitter @TheAsianist.