The Republic of the Philippines reaches from Taiwan in the north to Indonesia in the south. It is the fourth-largest country in South-east Asia after Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand. Bordered by the South China Sea – also known locally as the West Philippine Sea – in the west and the Sulu and Celebes seas in the south, the Philippines is home to some 175 ethnolinguistic groups across thousands of islands.
The Spanish colonial period lasted more than three centuries starting in the 1500s, leaving a significant mark on the native cultures. US influence became prominent following its takeover of the islands in 1898 after the Spanish-American War. US rule lasted until 1942, when the Japanese imposed a brutal occupation for the final three years of the Second World War. The Philippines finally gained full independence in 1946.
The Philippines has commanded a crucial place on international trade routes since the 17th century, and the local population’s continuous migration created the internationally minded and open society that can be seen in the country today.
The Philippines was influenced by successive groups of Austronesian migrants, who brought with them influences from Malay, Hindu and Islamic societies as early as the 10th century. Trade routes with China also led to significant cultural exchange that has been maintained to this day. The nation was named after Spain’s King Philip II following the arrival of Ferdinand Magellan, who landed in Cebu in 1521, signalling the beginning of over 300 years of Spanish colonial rule. In 1565 the arrival of Miguel López de Legazpi initiated permanent Spanish settlements, which oversaw the Philippines’ transition into Spain’s stronghold in the region.
The Acapulco-Manila galleon trade route connecting Spanish settlements in Mexico with Asia became the first intercontinental route in the new world. The Spanish colony also unified nearly the entire archipelago and established Catholicism, which remains the main religion to this day. Widespread oppression of local people under Spanish rule led to repeated attempts to overthrow the colonial power. The 1896 Philippine Revolution was largely unsuccessful until it received support from US military forces during the Spanish-American War.
The First Philippine Republic, formally established in 1898, was shortlived, as the Spanish-American War ended with the US purchase of Guam, Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico from Spain for $20m through the Treaty of Paris. The subsequent Philippine-American War that ensued concluded in 1902 and led to the Philippine Organic Act, officially making the country a US protectorate. It was not until 1935 that the Philippines received commonwealth status and self-government privileges from the US. This period lasted for a little over a decade, until the Japanese invaded and occupied the Philippines for most of the Second World War. Only in 1946 did the nation become independent through the Treaty of Manila.
Following a period of reconstruction, the Philippines gained prominence in the regional economic sphere, resulting in prosperous years that largely continued through the rule of President Ferdinand Marcos, who entered office in 1965. However, allegations of corruption and authoritarianism, his declaration of martial law in 1972 and the 1983 assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino Jr led to his ouster through the peaceful People Power Revolution of 1986, bringing Aquino’s widow, Corazón Aquino, to power. The subsequent period of cyclical economic instability and political and social unrest lasted almost a quarter of a century. In May 2010 elections saw Aquino’s son come to power, initiating efforts to tackle government corruption and attract foreign investment. The current president, Rodrigo Duterte, came to power in June 2016 and shares many of these priorities, although his methods and policy measures have often been different.
Three distinct administrative and geographic island groups make up the Philippines. Home to the capital city of Manila, the northern region of Luzon is the country’s economic, financial, administrative and industrial base. Much of the Philippines’ abundant biodiversity is located on the Visayas island group in the central part of the archipelago, making it a popular destination for tourists. The southernmost region, Mindanao, comprises the country’s second-largest island and the surrounding smaller islands, and has a largely agricultural economy. The Philippines is subdivided into 17 regions, of which the most significant economic contributor is the National Capital Region, also known as Metro Manila.
Climate & Emergency Response
The Philippines’ climate is predominantly tropical, with a rainy season that lasts almost half of the year, stretching from June to November. During this period the south-west monsoon brings significant rainfall and up to several typhoons per year. The other two discernible seasons see mild and dry weather between November and February, and hot and dry weather between March and May. The El Niño phenomenon in 2015 had devastating effects on the agriculture sector and water supply, leading to damages estimated at around P7bn ($139.2m).
In early November 2020 the country was hit by Typhoon Goni, known locally as Typhoon Rolly. Northern Luzon – including Metro Manila – was faced with Typhoon Vamco, known locally as Typhoon Ulysses, the following week. Over 4.4m people were impacted, with damage to agriculture and infrastructure exceeding P16bn ($318.2m), according to the country’s disaster management agency.
In addition to typhoons, the country’s location and proximity to the equator also make it susceptible to earthquakes. Given the volcanic composition of the Philippine archipelago, eruptions have not been uncommon over the course of history. Taal Volcano, located 59 km from Manila, in the province of Batangas, erupted in January 2020, damaging an estimated 3000 properties and requiring over 400,000 people to be evacuated. The Department of Health recorded 39 deaths related to the event.
The eruption spewed ashes that reached Metro Manila, disrupting classes, flights and business operations in the area – with particular disruption caused to manufacturing (see Industry & Agribusiness chapter). The following month President Duterte declared a state of calamity in the Calabarzon region, valid for one year. The declaration was aimed at supporting the region’s rehabilitation by coordinating and fast-tracking government and other humanitarian responses, as well as placing price controls on basic goods in the affected area and giving officials flexibility in utilising funds.
In early February 2020 the Philippines was the first country outside of China to report a Covid-19-related death, and the authorities subsequently implemented a host of measures aimed at mitigating the impact of the pandemic, as well as preventing the spread of the virus (see analysis).
The Philippines has the 13th-largest population in the world and the seventh largest in Asia. According to the latest estimates from the UN, the population reached 109.6m by mid-2020; a national census, led by the Philippine Statistics Authority, was ongoing as of November 2020. The authorities are working to address issues such as inequality and uneven growth, with 16.6% of the population living below the national poverty line in 2018, according to the Asian Development Bank.
The Philippines has the third-largest Catholic population in the world after Brazil and Mexico, in sharp contrast to the rest of South-east Asia. Under the influence of Spanish rule, Roman Catholicism made the Philippines one of only two Asian countries with a majority-Christian population, the other being Timor-Leste. Over 90% of Filipinos are Christian, with most identifying as Roman Catholic. Muslims make up around 6% of the population and are primarily concentrated in Mindanao.
Under Spanish rule, the authorities made little effort to formally educate the native population, as the archipelago was mainly seen as a commercial platform. Instead,the Spanish exploited regional differences to help cement their power. As a result, the first national education programme was based on the US model, making command of English an important skill to this day. Until recently, the Philippines was the only country in Asia with a 10-year basic education cycle. However, it transitioned to a K-12 programme, composed of kindergarten and 12 years of basic education – six years of primary education, four years of junior high school and two years of senior high school – starting in 2013, with the first cohort graduating secondary school in 2018.
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