Webinar on “The Philippines’ Transparency Initiative in the South China Sea: Quo Vadis?”

In this webinar, Assistant Secretary Jonathan Malaya, Associate Professor Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, PhD, and Assistant Professor Jaime B. Naval, discussed the Philippines’ implementation of its transparency initiative in the South China Sea. The panel elaborated on the implementation, effectiveness, and possible risks of the initiative under the Marcos Jr. administration on both the domestic and international levels.


Thursday, 15 February 2024 – Since February 2023, the Marcos Jr. administration embarked on a new approach in its policy in the South China Sea. This new approach, dubbed by some analysts as “strategic transparency” piqued the interest of not only the region, but also the rest of the world. Part of this approach involved exposing China’s harassment and behavior toward Philippine coast guard vessels and fishermen in the disputed waters. Although this has garnered widespread support from the United States and other like-minded states in the region, it has also resulted in negative reactions from China. This approach is expected to be prominently included in the new National Security Strategy of the Marcos Jr administration.

The ISEAS–Yusof Ishak Institute hosted Assistant Secretary Jonathan Malaya, Associate Professor Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, PhD and Assistant Professor Jaime B. Naval, for the webinar “The Philippines’ Transparency Initiative in the South China Sea: Quo Vadis?”. The webinar was moderated by Dr. Aries A. Arugay from the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute and was attended by around 99 participants.

Clockwise from top left: Dr Aries A. Arugay (moderator), Dr Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, Mr Jonathan Malaya and Dr Jaime Naval. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

The panel was composed of the following:

  • Jonathan Malaya, who is Assistant Director General and Spokesperson of the National Security Council (NSC). He also previously taught at the National College of Public Administration and Governance at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
  • Dr. Charmaine Misalucha-Willoughby, who is Associate Professor at the International Studies department of De La Salle University in Manila. She is also Senior Editor of Asian Politics and Policy (Wiley).
  • Jamie B. Naval, who is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines Diliman. He was also a fellow at the Strategic Studies Program of the UP Center for Integrative and Development Studies (UP CIDS), an active member of the Philippine Political Science Association (PPSA), and a lifetime member of the Philippine Association for China Studies (PACS).

ASec. Malaya first gave the audience a brief background about the Philippines’ transparency initiative, elaborating that it is ‘measured’. He noted that it is a measured approach that must maintain consistency with Philippine policy and strategy in the West Philippine Sea. He also emphasized that the role and importance of the National Task Force in the disputed waters. ASec. Malaya also discussed the initial reluctance of embedding the media with the transparency initiative and affairs pertaining to the West Philippine Sea. Despite this said reluctance, he explained that involving the local media was integral in raising awareness about China’s assertive tactics in the disputed waters, garnering domestic—along with international—support, and emphasizing the 2016 arbitral ruling that the Philippines originally won. ASec. Malaya also elaborated on measuring the success of the transparency initiative so far. In terms of increasing awareness about the issue and decreasing pressure from China, the initiative has been a success; however, in terms of changing Chinese behavior in the disputed waters, the initiative’s success in this regard is mixed.

Assoc. Prof. Willoughby then proceeded to raise three points concerning the Philippines’ transparency initiative. Firstly, she argued that the Philippines needs to understand and also clarify if this measured transparency is indeed a legitimate strategy or an approach. She emphasized the need for alignment in methods towards a common goal. Assoc. Prof. Willoughby also added that the end goal of the initiative must be clear—whether it is to raise awareness or change China’s behavior in the contested waters. Secondly, transparency must be a two-way street; if the Philippines sheds light on China’s actions, then there is also a need for the former to be transparent with its initiatives and actions. Lastly, Assoc. Prof. Willoughby raised the importance of building confidence and trust with the transparency initiative. Since the initiative can be mistaken as means of ‘naming and shaming’ China, the Philippines must also consider how this transparency initiative can transcend the zero-sum nature of security.

Finally, Asst. Prof. Naval echoed Assoc. Prof. Willoughby’s points, supporting the need to clarify whether the transparency initiative is a strategy or an approach. He explained that the initiative should not be the main strategy; rather, it should be a subordinate or prelude to an even grander strategy. Asst. Prof. Naval also explained that the level of transparency must be gauged, and that it must not be careless in releasing information to the public. Asst. Prof. Naval also echoed the previous points raised by ASec. Malaya, stating that while the initiative has made progress, its success is still considered to be mixed because the disputes in the contested waters are still unsettled. He also emphasized the importance of attaining consistency and proper coordination with the strategy, while also maintaining integrity with the transparency initiative. While its goal is to raise awareness and garner both domestic and international support, the Philippines must also have no underlying malicious intent with the initiative.

The Q&A portion revolved around the risks that the transparency initiative may have and the other factors that could affect it under the Marcos Jr. administration. Regarding possible risks, ASec. Malaya stated that the greatest concern is the negative reaction it could garner from China, which may be interpreted by Beijing as provocative. He also clarified that the transparency is indeed part of a grander strategy, and that the initiative is thoroughly discussed among all government agencies and the Palace. In order to reduce risks with information, ASec. Malaya reemphasized his point that the transparency initiative is calibrated, indicating that certain information will remain classified. Regarding other factors such as alliances, Assoc. Prof. Willoughby stated that while other Southeast Asian nations are supportive of the initiative, the Philippines must be more explicit with its use of the 2016 Arbitral Award. She also suggested delving more into the civil-maritime security affairs because it can serve as a gateway to further relations with other alliances or states. Lastly, Asst. Prof. Naval suggested the idea of looking more into other developments, such as the role of environmental groups in maritime security.