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Philippine Navy History


If there's one motif with which to explain the logic of Philippines history, it is the quest for unity amidst the barriers of culture and geography. Since the Philippines is an archipelagic country, it can be said that even cultural divisions have geographical determinants in them. In this respect, the country's archipelagic make-up and the difficulties of integrating the scattered islands to one sovereign unit is not alone a political conundrum, but also a maritime riddle.

Starting in the 1950s, the Philippines had insisted on the recognition of the archipelagic concept as part of public international law. The Philippines only managed to win recognition of the concept 3 decades later when the United Nation Convention on the Law of the Sea was signed. The Convention recognized an archipelago as an integrated unit in which "the islands, waters and other natural features form an intrinsic geographical, economic and political entity."

Still, it has been easier to get the archipelagic concept into the international statutes than to have its ramifications on naval defense and marine development be appreciated by Filipinos. This is puzzling considering a key lesson in history: the fate of the Philippines since time immemorial has always been closely linked with the sea.

The first Filipinos were Malay fisher, hunter and unsettled cultivators from Southeast Asia who came to be the islands in frail boats. Settling in the coastal areas, they traded regularly with merchant boats from China, Borneo and the Malay Peninsula. They themselves fitted their own ships and went on trading voyages across Southeast Asia.

The Philippines had long been a seafaring nation. Early Filipino inhabitants came from across the seas, from Ancient China, Borneo and Malay Peninsula. For centuries, seafaring natives living along the coastal areas of the country have sailed across the uncharted waters of the surrounding seas in their frail little boats. The Filipino seafarers engaged in a very active trade and made regular voyages to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia and the Far East.

During the period during which the Philippines was a Spanish colony, Filipino sailors were utilized by their colonial masters on local expeditions and fights against their enemies. The marine factor was ever present in Spain's long rule in the Philippines. Many times, Spain's occupation was challenged by European power and just as many, Spain retained its hold on the colony through decisive naval engagements the against the invaders. Some of the victories were achieved in the face of great odds, often described as nothing short of miraculous. Spain also fortified towns to protect them from Muslim marauders who came by water to kidnap Christians and sell them to the slave trade in the south. Spain established shipyards where Filipinos showed an innate talent for shipbuilding. It carried out the famed and profitable galleon trade between Manila and Acapulco that opened the Philippines to the world and many of its modern ideas that sowed the seeds of nationalism and independence among educated Filipinos.

As an island archipelago, the early Filipinos had realized that the Philippines was a maritime country. Its development and progress depended primarily on the sea and the sustaining trade and commerce not only with other countries, but also with neighboring islands. The Filipino nationalists who later fought against Spanish domination were fully aware of this as they underscored it as vital factor in their struggle for independence. The destruction of the Spanish Navy became a major component of their revolutionary undertaking.

Based on all of this, the history of the Philippine Navy etches the evolution of maritime thinking among Filipinos. It is the chronicle of the rise of national consciousness on the importance of the seas that surround and traverse the scattered islands of the Philippines. It is the saga of a people coming to terms with the dire imperatives of the geography they were born in, a geography dictated not so much by land as it is by water, for better or for worse.

The story of the Philippine Navy is, in a sense therefore, the story of the nation itself. Although standard Filipino textbooks on geography and the social science include the clich that the Philippines has a coastline longer than that of the United States (which can be said to have the world's most powerful navy) there has historically been only a token appreciation of the resulting maritime pressures. The recognition came belatedly because of the urgent environment and geopolitical challenges facing the country's marine territory and its resources.

Why the recognition came so late has been perplexing. To be sure, the Philippines has had a long history of occupation by foreign powers, all of them coming in from the maritime backdoor. Spain was the impregnable naval power of its day. Through a battle to the death on the seas it shed these colonies to another major naval power, the United States, after years of decline.

The United States itself announced its johny-come-lately imperialistic intent by taking the high seas. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan developed the doctrine of the United States as a naval power, and the American leadership seemed to have agreed with him when it sent ships to fight Spain for a share of the world's vanishing forest of colonies. The US, after a series of minor conflicts and world wars, eventually came to be unchallenged on the seas, its naval bases at home and abroad so positioned as to reflect its strategy of forward deployment and to project American power worldwide for both allies and foes.

Until recently, the Philippines hosted the biggest overseas naval facility of the United StatesS. However, decades of playing innkeeper to American troops and ships seemed not to have significantly changed the deficient state of maritime consciousness in the country. The Filipinos imbibed just about everything American, from hamburgers to Hollywood movies, except maritime correctness.

Even at the height of American involvement in Vietnam, in which the Philippines played a not-so-paltry role in the US strategy of communist containment by hosting the US bases, there were still many Filipinos who took the sea for granted. Even after the retreat of the Americans from Vietnam and the expansion up of naval facilities at Cam Ranh Bay by the unified Vietnamese state, Filipinos could afford to defer any sea-change in maritime thinking. Surprisingly, the basis for complacency was also the basis for alarm. Filipino leaders could point to the as reason for their confidence that nothing untoward was going to happen. "We had the advantages of an insular country," recalls retired Rear Admiral Simeon M. Alejandro. "There was wide span of water between Vietnam and the Philippines."

Eventually the statement of geographical fact Could no longer be taken as a license for complacency. In the first place, it was ironic that while two-thirds of the earth's surface was covered by water, the oceans remained a daunting frontier for knowledge. The United Nations had in fact declared 1998 as the Year of the Ocean in order to urge people to deepen their understanding of the sea, specifically on how global weather patterns and other environmental phenomena were influenced by what goes under it. A reckoning for the Philippines in this regard came at a most propitious year, 1998: the Centennial of the Philippine Independence, the United Nations' Year of the Ocean, and the Centennial of the Philippine Navy.

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