Spanning more than 300,000 sq km, the Republic of the Philippines has a complex history marked by successive waves of migration and periods of colonisation and occupation. Located south of Taiwan and east of Vietnam, and bounded to the west by the South China Sea and to the south by the Sulu and Celebes Seas, the Philippines is home to some 175 ethnolinguistic groups across its 7641 islands. Since proclaiming independence from the Spanish in 1898 and the US in 1946, the nation has faced successive decades of political instability, internal armed insurgencies and issues with corruption.
Nevertheless, recent years have brought sustained economic growth and increased efforts to curb graft, most notably during the six-year term of former President Benigno Aquino III, whose presidency ended in mid-2016. His time as leader was succeeded by longtime Davao City mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, whose 2016 election was characterised by a historic 82% turnout rate. Major policy goals of his administration look to push forward large-scale infrastructure projects aimed at improving internal and external connectivity, while implementing a controversial hardline approach to crime and drug abuse. Perhaps the biggest policy shift in Philippine history is President Duterte’s pivot to China, which serves to promote closer economic and political ties, while easing tensions surrounding territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
During an October 2016 state visit, Duterte’s administration signed trade deals and cooperation agreements with Xi Jiping, his Chinese counterpart, most of which are geared towards addressing infrastructure bottlenecks. Macroeconomic fundamentals have continued to improve, as has transparency. In addition the country’s biodiversity, natural resources and young demographics have been increasingly recognised as important assets.
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 economic, financial and administrative centre of the country and its industrial base. The Visayas island group comprises the Philippines’ central islands, where much of the country’s abundant biodiversity and tourism destinations are located, and Mindanao – which consists of the country’s second-largest island of the same name and the smaller islands surrounding it – makes up the southernmost region and is a largely rural economy.
The country is then further subdivided into 17 regions, of which the most significant economic contributor is the National Capital Region, also known as Metro Manila. In 2017 it accounted for 38.1% of GDP. The Philippines’ geographic positioning as a gateway between the Pacific and the rest of Asia, and in particular its proximity to the region’s largest economies in China and Japan, bestows it with several important sea routes for trade and commerce.
The Philippine climate is predominantly tropical, marked by a rainy season that stretches between the months of June and November. During that period, the south-west monsoon brings plenty of rain, potentially including several typhoons per year. The other two pronounced seasons are cool and dry weather from November to February, and hot and dry weather from March to May.
The El Niño weather phenomenon in 2015 had devastating effects on agriculture and water supply, leading to damages estimated at around P7bn ($138.3m). The Philippines’ location on the Ring of Fire along the Pacific Rim, and its proximity to the equator makes the nation subject to numerous typhoons and earthquakes. In 2013 super typhoon Haiyan was one of the strongest to hit the archipelago. Earthquakes are also common, and in May 2018 the country experienced a 6.1-magnitude earthquake on Catanduanes.
The Philippine population is the 12th largest in the world and the eight biggest in Asia. According to the latest estimates from the UN, the population reached 106.5m people in the beginning of 2018. The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) estimates that by the year 2020, 70.6m out of the projected 109.9m inhabitants will fall between the ages of 15 and 64, indicating a period of time when a significant proportion of the population will be of working age. As of the first quarter of 2018, the PSA reported that the labour force participation rate stood at 62.2%. In addition, more than 10m Filipinos live and work overseas, generating remittance inflows of some $28.1bn in 2017, according to the central bank. This makes the Philippines the world’s third-highest recipient of income sent from abroad. Remittances are expected to rise by 4% in 2018.
The country 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 CE. Trade routes with China also led to significant cultural influence that has been maintained to this day.
The nation was named after then-Spanish 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 Lopez de Legazpi initiated permanent Spanish settlements, which oversaw the Philippines’ transition into Spain’s stronghold in the region. The Acapulco-Manila trade route connecting Spanish settlements in Mexico with Asia became the first inter-continental route in the new world.
The Spanish colony also unified nearly the entire archipelago and established Catholicism, which remains the country’s 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 the 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, Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines from Spain for $20m through the Treaty of Paris. The subsequent Philippine-American War that ensued concluded in 1902, with the Philippine Republic effectively dissolved, marking the beginning of US occupation. It would not be until 1935 that the Philippines received commonwealth status and self-government privileges from the US. This period lasted for a little over a decade, when 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 came to office in 1965. However, widespread 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, Corazon, 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 and initiate efforts to tackle corruption and attract foreign investment during his six-year term. President Duterte shares these priorities, although his methods and policy measures have often been very different.
Religion & Culture
Behind Brazil and Mexico, the Philippines boasts the third-largest Catholic population in the world, sharply contrasting with the rest of South-east Asia. Under the influence of Spanish rule, Roman Catholicism made the Philippines one of only two Asian countries with the majority of Christian population, the other being Timor Leste. Over 90% of Filipinos identify as Christian, with the majority saying they are Roman Catholics and the remainder split between Protestants and other Christian denominations. Muslims make up around 5% of the population, primarily in the southern regions of the Philippines.
The Philippines was the only country in Asia, and only one of three worldwide, with a 10-year basic education cycle. The K-12 programme was signed into law by President Aquino in May 2013 to bring the sector up to par with the rest of the world. The new 12-year curriculum saw two additional senior high school years, as well as a mandatory kindergarten year, added to the traditional 10-year model. By constitutional decree, education receives the largest portion of budgetary spending, with this high-priority status being a legacy of the US having established a system of universal and free basic education during its occupation. Higher education at the country’s 2000-plus institutions normally consists of a four-year programme, modelled on the US education system.
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