Philippines: From the Edge to the Middle of Things

Analysis and Opinion

By Irineo B. R. Salazar

The Philippines weren’t isolated before, but they had some distance from other places. Visayan pirates allegedly raided Taiwan in the 12th century, but not the Chinese mainland as it is around a week’s sailing away, while ancient Greeks according to legend attacked Troy which is near modern Çannakale, Turkey – just around 2 days sailing away. There is archaeological evidence of Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai artifacts among Philippine chiefdoms of old, but no conquest by Asian mainland powers which weren’t that near.

Crete to Sicily is 2 days sailing, Sicily to Majorca could take twice as long. Stopovers still made it possible for Greeks and Phoenicians/Carthage to found cities as colonies in the Western Mediterranean – and for Rome to eventually call it Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea”. It is easier to trade than to establish outposts, and easier to establish outposts than to conquer. Logistics certainly play a role. Outposts had to be fortified, territories defended.

Visayans certainly had a lot of trade of their own as their islands are very close. Visayan languages are very similar, and indication of contact. Tausug is also considered Visayan. Sulu is not so far either, Bicol and Manila are not much harder to reach as well. That Tagalog, Bicol and the Visayan languages are closely related is not really surprising. Excellent combat skills and fast boats in an age without firepower still meant safety then. The Philippines was on the edge of Asia, but this was to change over the centuries.

A. Via Southeast Asia

The islands that became Indonesia are close to one another and are close to the Malay Peninsula. From there to Brunei and to Manila are each similar to Manila-Saigon in distance, but stopover points can be Kuching and Palawan. Hinduism spread up to Bali.  Hinduism may have reached the Philippines or at least culturally influenced it. The Laguna Copperplate can be accurately dated to 900 AD as it refers to a Hindu calendar. Chiefs recognized as over other chiefs called themselves Rajas in Manila and in Cebu.

Ships became faster and more stable over the centuries. Arabs invented navigation instruments like the sextant and the astrolabe. Islamic traders came via Bengal and converted the southern part of the Malay Peninsula, most of what is now Indonesia except Bali, and finally Borneo and parts of the Philippines – but they did not conquer. Raja Sulayman of Manila was Muslim and was connected to the Sultan of Brunei. William Henry Scott mentions Japanese katanas in Manila, meaning there was a trade route.

Portuguese later came around Africa and established outposts – Goa, Malacca, Macau – and had a trading presence in Nagasaki, and for the spice trade in Moluccan Ternate. Wars in Europe had led to an arms race and thus the Portuguese had ships with powerful cannons, which made it easier to conquer and hold forts. Malacca in the Malay Peninsula was conquered by the Portuguese in 1511. Ferdinand Magellan played a part in this. That the Dutch later displaced the Portuguese in Asia is another story not dealt with here.

B. Via the Americas

Though Vikings probably first crossed the Atlantic via Iceland to Greenland – with stopovers – the 3-4 week Atlantic crossing that went via Canary islands or Madeira was mastered later. It took 3-4 months to cross the Pacific. Austronesian peoples settled and regularly navigated the Pacific by boat and had strong knowledge of the stars, ocean currents and winds as well as wayfaring, a way of visualizing how island routes were.

Magellan entered territory Europeans did not know yet at that time. Maps then roughly showed how Europe, Africa, a bit of Asia and even parts of the Americas were. The full conquest of Mexico up to the Pacific made it possible to send ships from there. The discovery of the return route to Mexicomeant that the galleon trade became feasible. Bolivian silver bought goods from Chinese traders in Manila, conquered in 1571. Dutch failed to conquer Manila in 1646. Our Lady of La Naval is still celebrated yearly for this.

The English came from the 18th century onwards, occupied Manila for a while, and landed in Australia and New Zealand which they eventually both colonized. Captain Cook went around the Pacific and landed in Hawaii in the late 18th century. Spain losing Mexico meant the end of the galleon trade by the early 19th century, which forced it to open major ports like Manila, Iloilo and Cebu for non-Spanish traders and plant cash crops. The United States already became a market for Philippine sugar from 1796 onwards.

C. Faster and further

Captain Cook had reached Hawaii in the late 18th century. King Kamehameha consolidated his rule in the early 19th century, when Hawaii already had become an important trading post. American Protestant missionaries came soon after. Plantations started recruiting labor from East Asia.  The 19thcentury brought steamships independent from the wind. The USA imported Philippine abaca for shipping ropes from 1850. Commodore Perry forced Japan open in 1854. The Meiji reform period started there.

In 1869 the Suez Canal opened, making travel to Southeast Asia from Europe even easier. The USA eventually took hold of Hawaii, part of Samoa, Guam and the Philippines. The Northern Marianas and the Carolines, also formerly Spanish, were sold to Germany, which had also shown presence at Manila Bay in 1898 among others, and also took possession of Palau, parts of New Guinea and the Marshall Islands. The Northern Marianas and other German colonies fell to the Japanese after Germany lost World War I and all colonies.

Airplanes were to further change the equation. Pearl Harbor was possible because of them. But later as well they changed the equation. It takes a week more or less to sail to Saigon from Manila. Someone I know recalls how he saw B-52 bombers from Clark on their way to Vietnam from his childhood Tarlacin the 1970s. Today, supersonic jet fighters, aircraft carriers and missiles very much narrow the formerly wide open seas. Armed island fortresses built by China in the middle complicate the equation even more.

D. In the Middle

Today a large portion of global sea trade – container ships, oil tankers and more – passes through those seas. Trade no longer needs to hop between islands like before. Big ships cross these seas. Serious occupation of the Spratly islands only started after WW2. China has fortified and armed some islands.  The landing strip at Pag-Asa Island was built by the Philippines in the 1970s. Major contenders have been Vietnam, the Philippines and China. Some islands are held by Taiwan or Malaysia. Fishermen fish, from many countries.

There are of course many possible concerns or fears. Japan and South Korea might fear China cutting of their oil supply. America might fear shipping being blocked that is important for them. China might fear their oil supply being strangled off. They may also fear US submarines near their coast as well as aircraft carriers. Philippine fishermen may fear that what happened to the Gem-Ver from Mindoro in 2019 will also happen to them.

Modern Çannakale, like ancient Troy, is at the entrance from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Marmara, which leads to the Bosporus that in turn leads to the Black Sea. Greeks settled the Black Sea coast and the resulting Pontic Greeks lived there until after WW2. Control over an important passagemust have been one key to Troy’s power and also that of Byzantines and Ottomans. Modern Turkey is bound to a treaty that compels it to let all international shipping through. All ships need a local pilot as the passage is narrow.

E. Options

Warships can hardly cause trouble in such an area, but in the wide seas between Vietnam and the Philippines they can roam free. Armed islands, American warships and Chinese coast guard make them a place where conflict can ensue anytime. What if the Philippines and Vietnam made a treaty with the USA and China that they let everybody through but warships only through a defined corridor, with all four monitoring compliance? Sounds a hell of a lot like Berlin under four powers, and somehow diplomatically hard to achieve.

Working with both China and the USA militarily like the Philippines today seems very foolish. Germany did well by being in the NATO from the time of division and staying there after unity. But the clear fronts one has on land don’t exist at sea. Pearl Harbor and McArthur’s island hopping prove this. Staying in VFA and MDT with the USA to be protected in case of attack but no bases to attract attack like in 1942 seems smartest. Finding a consensus with Vietnam and others, then talking to the superpowers is an idea.

The Philippines sometimes still has a self-centered mindset, as if times had not changed since before 1521. It always has been relatively protected by others until 1991, when US bases were made to leave. Exceptions are the British from 1762-64 in Manila and the Japanese from 1942-44. AFP modernization especially boats seriously started only 2010. President Duterte is as transactional and fluid as Cebu’s Raja Humabon back in 1521, not applicable in a world bristling with modern weapons. New strategic thinking is needed.

F. Mare Nostrum

Visayan languages are quite close to one another, linguists say, an indication that Visayans had frequent contact through the seas between the islands. Visayans today still frequently become sailors, usually to work abroad. I have read on FB an anecdote about how Luzonians stayed inside the ship when seas were rough while some Visayans stood smiling on the deck railing. The captain said “you must be Visayans”. The seas around their islands always were their Mediterranean – like Roman “Mare Nostrum” (Our Sea).

The GemVer crew from Mindoro, their townmates and their captain “Buhawi” (Storm) still have the old maritime culture in them. They used “laot” in interviews, an old Tagalog word for high seas related to Malay “laut”. Commodore Plaridel Garcia said in a radio interview that regaining “maritime awareness” is important. Filipinos clearly have to connect back to the old feel for the sea, still there among some. It is their native element. Have their own seas back in their hearts and minds again. Mare Nostrum starts with that.

Irineo B. R. Salazar

Munich, 530 meters above sea level – 13 September 2020

Thanks to Karl Garcia, Cha Coronel Datu and more for their comments.


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