Whenever I dream of what we could become, the term “total package” crosses my mind. It is mission-focused and considers the necessary capabilities, enablers, and tools necessary to make things happen. At ground level, these include:
a. Transforming our educational, political, cultural and economic systems and institutions necessary to drive nation-building initiatives.
b. Developing the country’s brain trust with the right mindset to influence the government and society to continually improve the state of the nation.
c. Cobbling a treasured collection of international and domestic collaborators to build all the necessary infrastructure to grow and develop our economy.
There’s a catch though. Those are long-range in nature, and unattractive to politicians with short-sighted self-serving time frames. This is more suited for statesmen and nation-builders with the vision, willingness, and patience to win the future. Admittedly, there are only a few willing to fold their sleeves for the long journey to a better Philippines.
Let’s take Vice-President Leni Robredo’s vision of transforming the country into a maritime power. It will take time but the foundations need to be laid. It’s clear to her that the Philippines is an archipelagic state with a large maritime domain requiring a strong merchant marine and Navy. A maritime power’s core elements are: geographic position; coastline; adequate and well-positioned ports; population size; sea-related activities; and good statecraft. Except for that last element that must be fulfilled, our country has all the other elements. Unfortunately, past and present administrations failed to exploit those.
We don’t build our own ships although we have foreign shipbuilders operating here. Our mariners account for around one-third of the world’s mariners, but they serve on ships belonging to other flags. UNCTAD’s Review of Maritime Transport 2021 cited the Philippines as Asia’s top global provider of both seafarers and officers that play a key role in global logistics. IDE-Jetro provides research on how the Philippines has changed its policies and laws concerning seafarer training, overseas employment support, and legal protection while responding to the changes in the global seafarer labor market, such as seafarer shortages in advanced shipping countries. In this regard, we are the gold standard. But we can do much more.
Should VP Robredo beat the odds and become the country’s next president, she’ll have her hands full. A shipbuilding industry has a very specific character. For example, fittings, fixtures, and man-hour requirements differ from ship to ship. It’s not a mass production item. Building the industry requires clear policy directions, appropriate legislation, economic growth, financial support, technical innovation, managerial and technical skills, and expanding trade routes. Ancillary industries, like steel, tools and parts manufacture, will be essential to its success.
We do have a scattering of small shipyards building, for example, multi-purpose attack craft, landing utility transports, offshore patrol vessels, fishing boats, barges, tugboats, leisure craft, and fast ferry boats. But they lack the wherewithal to service the vast commercial and security requirements of local and international markets, to include e.g., cruise liners, superyachts, oil and gas tankers, bulk cargo and container ships. The failure to support them has evidently stunted the industry’s growth. And because we’ve neglected it, we haven’t built the ships needed by our Navy and Coast Guard to defend and protect our national interests.
I envy the countries who were once behind the Philippines commercially and militarily in the 1950s and ’60s. For example, South Korea, Indonesia, and Singapore who, in the process, have enlarged their manufacturing and technological capacities. Had we done the same, we’d also be supplying the region and other parts of the world. If we only kept in step with our neighbors, we’d by now be churning out our own landing docks, submarines, frigates, corvettes, mines for warfare, offshore patrol vessels, fast missile attack crafts, replenishment and floating dry dock platforms.
Not only that. We’d be collaborating with foreign suppliers of weapons, combat systems, and non-combat equipment to equip those platforms that, in time, could also be manufactured domestically by public-private partnerships. These would include helicopters, communications systems, radar and sonar systems, missiles and rockets, guided munitions, air- sea- and land-based drones, crew-served weapons and ammunition. The direct benefits would be increases in GDP, technology transfers, purchasing power parity, value added, skills and knowledge.
VP Robredo has given the distinct impression that she understands the security-development nexus: that both are two faces of the same coin, that one cannot stand without the other. Becoming a maritime power will require transformed institutions, the brain trust and troves of partners and collaborators to make it happen. If she does it correctly, she’d be strengthening elements of our national power — academic and training institutions, human resources, economic diplomacy, industrial base, strategic infrastructure, and national security.
I’m picking up signals that foreign investors see VP Robredo as the best candidate that could restore trust and confidence in the country. By providing an enabling environment, foreign direct investments could surpass the peaks registered during the Ramos and Duterte administrations in 1998 and 2017, respectively, after 20 years of mostly mediocre and erratic performance. With a good economic team in place, good governance on the move, socio-political stability and professional security forces, the country may weather the natural and geopolitical turbulence affecting the global commons.
That will require a whole-of-government effort, national and local, to increase disincentives for malfeasance and misfeasance, while increasing incentives for good behavior and performance. A unifying and visionary leadership, no-nonsense governance and civic responsibility for the common good are indispensable to the effort. That’s essentially the total package.
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 member and former governor of the MAP, chair of Philippine Council for Foreign Relations, vice-chair of Pepsi-Cola Products Philippines, Inc. and sits on the boards of other companies as independent director.