Back to Article List


       The political history of the Philippines begins clearly from the formation of various ethno-linguistic groups with distinct territorial imperatives and traditions. The political system revolved around a kinship-based power or influence hierarchy headed by a leader called mampus or mapalon among the Ivatan, babacnang or “amaen ti ili” among the Ilocano, apo among the Igorot, benganganat among the Ilongot, mingal among the Gaddang, gator lakan among the Tagalog, rajah among the Bisayan, timuay among the Subanun, datu among the lumad and Muslim of Mindanao, and nakurah among the Sama. After almost two centuries of Islam, the sultanate system was superimposed on the ancient political institutions gradually integrating them into the sultanates of Sulu in 1450 A.D. and Maguindanao in 1511. The third process in Manila was about to emerge when colonial contact preempted it.

       The advent of colonialism strongly affected the development of ancient political systems gradually replaced with the Spanish then American political structures, institutions, and culture — a transition from an autocratic-frailocratic to a liberal democratic distribution of power, privileges, and status based on a racial dichotomy between the colonizers and the colonized. The locals, who enjoyed the responsibilities but not the power of political participation during the  377 years of  Spanish rule, only began to enjoy gradual democratic involvement during the 48 years of American rule. This started from a limited ilustrado-elite participation in both national and local levels until the Filipinization of the majority of the bureaucracy after 1916. It was only American economic power that remained by the time Philippine declared independence from the United States on July 4, 1946.

       The post-colonial political system remained attached to the American model despite the infusion of nationalist and Filipinistic orientation. It gradually developed along more radical lines culminating by the 1960’s in a neo-colonial outlook that tried to balance between two conflicting and/or contradictory development processes.

       The diplomatic aspect of Philippine political history maybe viewed in relation to four perceivable periods of foreign contacts, encounters, and relations. First,  before the coming of Islam in the late 13th century (about 1280 AD), the Philippines enjoyed dynamic relations with Southeast Asian states and peoples largely in trade and commerce   especially from China and India. One of the most important conduits of trade was Brunei as seen in the development of Manila as an entrepot of Asian trade. The artifacts of culture unearthed in Mindoro, Tondo, Laguna etc. from porcelain and metal work items to copper plate inscription of Lumbang (Laguna) are evidences of the ancient free trade system.

       The establishment of two powerful sultanates in Southern Philippines and a strong Brunei-Manila politico-economic process altered the structure of Philippine foreign relations. It resulted to a more institutional and centralized system  involving the Sultan as the central authority and the datus as authority in council. The first recorded diplomatic relations were between Sulu and China starting in 1417 with a tribute embassy of about 340 royalties and their retinues headed by the East King Paduka Pahala and the West King Maharaja Kamalud Din. The embassies continued intermittently from three to five years interval until late 18th century.

       The establishment of the colonial system following the Spanish’ successful conquest and occupation of Manila in 1570 resulted not only in the elimination of the Muslim political system in Southern Luzon but also in the beginning of Spanish diplomatic history. This was marked by a highly centralized and bureaucratized foreign relations that emanated from the Crown and inter-related with the Holy See. Thus, both the Church and State in the Philippines were involved in shaping foreign relations. Consequently, in the Philippines, two diplomatic processes affected the development and growth of the various communities: the sultanate process which continued to function in the Muslim South and the colonial process which involved the Christianized areas of the archipelago. The result of such a dichotomous development of foreign affairs in the Philippines was the inevitable emergence of conflict as a persistent characteristic of Spanish-Muslim relations in the archipelago. The change of colonial rule from Spanish to American after the Spanish-American war in 1898 only led to changes  in methods in diplomacy. This involved the neutralization of the Muslim armed struggle beginning from the political emasculation of the Sulu sultanate by way of the Carpenter-Kiram Agreement of March 22, 1915 until the establishment of the Third Philippine Republic on July 4, 1946.

       Postwar Philippine foreign relations inclined on the maintenance of productive relations with the United States whose dominant influence in Philippine affairs continued after the restoration of Philippine independence in 1946. This was through three military instruments: Military Bases Agreement of March 14, 1947, Military Assistance Pact of March 21, 1947, and the Mutual Defense Treaty of August 30, 1951. It also involved the grant parity rights to American interests in 1946 expanded to all forms of American relations. The Philippines also gave priority to strenghthening ties with Southeast Asian neighbors through several mechanisms such as SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization), ASA (Association of Southeast Asia), etc. By 1965, the need to pursue meaningful independent foreign policies and relations led to strengthening ties with socialist opportunities to get involved in the United Nations peace initiatives including those in the Middle East. The result of Philippine diplomatic offensives was the opening of more opportunities to Filipino overseas workers in various parts of the globe — this created for the Philippines a new source of foreign income gradually overtaking the contribution of   traditional exports to Philippine dollar reserves.

       Today, Philippine diplomatic thrusts combine old conservatism rooted in neo-colonial heritage and new democratic ideals based on progressive nationalism and pragmatic internationalism.

About the Author:
Samuel K. Tan is the Presiding Officer in the Executive Board of the National Historical Institute. He is also the Director for Mindanao Studies Program at the Center for Integrative and Development Studies of the University of the Philippines, Quezon City.