Spanning more than 300,000 sq km, the Republic of the Philippines reaches from Taiwan in the north to Indonesia in the south. In terms of territorial size, it is the fourth-largest country in South-east Asia after Indonesia, Myanmar and Thailand. Bordered by the South China Sea in the west and the Sulu and Celebes seas in the south, the Philippines is home to some 175 ethnolinguistic groups across over 7000 islands.
The Spanish colonial period lasted more than three centuries from the 1500s, leaving a significant mark on the native cultures. US influence then became prominent following its takeover of the islands in 1898 after the war with Spain. 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 native population’s continuous migration has created the internationally minded and open society that can be seen in the country today. The official figure of overseas Filipino workers given by the Philippine Statistics Authority is 2.3m, but different estimates, including those from remittance operators, suggest that up to 10m Filipinos work abroad.
Remittances are a key source of income for the country, helping to stimulate consumption and boost household purchasing power. Other key drivers of economic growth and employment include business process outsourcing, construction and real estate. Halfway through President Rodrigo Duterte’s six-year term in office, 2019 has already seen progress in the development of public infrastructure under the Build, Build, Build programme, another major generator of economic growth and foreign investment.
One of the most important legal changes introduced by President Duterte is the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL). The law, which came into effect in August 2018, provides the framework needed for the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, which has replaced the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The BOL aims to promote stability in the southern region, where the majority of the country’s Muslim population resides.
Other major policy goals include the adoption of a federal constitution, a proposal that has faced some opposition in Congress. President Duterte’s hard-line approach to crime and drug use, meanwhile, has created international controversy since 2016.
The Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the US, signed in 1951, declares the US as the country’s sole formal military ally. However, President Duterte has cultivated warmer ties with China as the country seeks external sources of investment, particularly for infrastructure projects. In November 2018 China’s President Xi Jinping visited the Philippines, resulting in the signing of 29 agreements. Nevertheless, sovereignty disputes between the two countries over the control of a series of islands in the South China Sea – or West Philippine Sea – have continued as a result of expansionist moves by China in recent years.
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 agriculture-based economy. The country is further subdivided into 17 regions, of which the most significant economic contributor is the National Capital Region, also known as Metro Manila.
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 107.4m in the first quarter of 2019. The Philippine Statistics Authority forecasts that by the year 2020, 70.6m out of the projected 109.9m inhabitants will fall between the ages of 15 and 64. Income inequality and uneven growth are problems that need addressing if the country is to escape the middle-income trap, with poverty incidence among Filipinos in the first quarter of 2018 estimated at 21%.
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 plenty of rain, potentially including several typhoons per year. The other two pronounced seasons are mild and dry weather between November and February, and hot and dry weather between March and May.
The El Niño weather phenomenon in 2015 had devastating effects on agriculture and water supply, leading to damages estimated at around P7bn ($130.2m). The country’s location and proximity to the equator also makes it subject to typhoons and earthquakes. In April 2019 a 6.1-magnitude earthquake hit Luzon, with the epicentre located 91 km from Metro Manila.
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 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 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 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 short-lived, 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 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 came to 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 and initiate efforts to tackle government 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 in 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.
Spanish colonisers exploited the regional differences in the Philippines in order to maintain power and made little effort to formally educate the native population. 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, the country is currently transitioning to the 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.