Is the Philippines part of Southeast Asia?

Are Filipinos Asians or Pacific Islanders? Is the Philippines part of Southeast Asia, Oceania or the Pacific Islands? Officially, Filipinos are categorized as Asians and the Philippines is part of Southeast Asia. But describing Filipinos as Pacific Islanders is not wrong.

For a long time, Filipinos were known as Pacific Islanders. The Philippines used to be called the Philippine Islands of the Pacific. Tourism officials in the country have been enticing tourists around the world to visit the Islands Philippines.

The Philippines is detached from mainland Asia. When the Americans first arrived there more than a century ago, they described the Philippine Islands as “orphans of the Pacific.” Perhaps they were referring to the geographical distance of the country from the inland Asian continent.

Composed of more than 7,000 islands, the Philippine archipelagic state was a political creation of Western colonizers. It was Spain during the 16th century which united the major islands of the Philippines. If Spain hadn’t occupied the islands, the Philippine nation state would not have existed.

Luzon, the largest island in the north of the Philippines, could have been a territory of China or Taiwan today. Mindanao in the south could have been a province of Malaysia or Indonesia. The formation of a bigger nation state composed of the Philippine Islands, Taiwan and parts of Malaysia and Indonesia could have been another possibility.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines, the inhabitants of the islands had little contact with mainland Asia. Trade with China and Indochina was limited to a few islands. Cultural interaction was almost non-existent. It was only Mindanao Island which had an active political, economic and cultural relationship with Borneo. Islam was introduced in the south Philippines through this connection.

Mindanao was not effectively colonized by Spain. It was only much later, during the American occupation in the early 20th century to be exact, that it was officially integrated with the rest of the islands. It was Mindanao, not the Philippines, which had close links with other Malay kingdoms.

The Philippines was assimilated to mainland Asia through the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade. The products of the Far East were transported to the Americas and Europe through this trade route. Exotic goods from China and other parts of Asia were shipped first to Manila before being loaded onto galleon ships bound for Acapulco, Mexico.

This kind of trading relationship between the Philippines and mainland Asia provided little opportunity for deep cultural and political association between the inhabitants of these territories. Centuries of Western occupation had isolated the Filipinos from their Asian neighbors.

Philippine society evolved differently from other Asian nations. For example, the Philippines is the only Christian-dominated nation in Asia. The blending of Western and native cultures created a unique Philippine society which is neither Western nor Asian. A scholar described this process as the bastardization of Filipino culture.

Many Filipinos are unsure about their identity. They believe they are Asians but many of them feel closer to the West, especially the United States. They seem to be prouder of their Western upbringing than their Asian personality. Colonial mentality has been identified as one of the negative traits of many Filipinos.

Southeast Asia is defined as a geographical concept in the Philippines. But other than this, Southeast Asia is almost an empty signifier. Filipinos couldn’t appreciate nor understand the cultural and religious practices of their neighbors. They are unaware of Indochina politics.

The Philippines was used as a launching pad of the United States during the Vietnam War. While panic swept the rest of the region when Cambodia and Thailand almost went into war over a border dispute a few months ago, the Philippines did not express a sense of alarm over the situation.

It is merely by geographical accident that the Philippines has come to be linked with Southeast Asia. This is unfortunate since the Philippines’ detachment from mainland Southeast Asia could have been maximized to exert political leadership in the region.

By not being involved with the numerous squabbles in Indochina, the Philippines could have played the role of an objective arbiter of conflicts in the region. But Filipinos seem to be more interested in political events in the West.

The Philippines should strengthen its ties with its neighbors. Its location is not a hindrance to promote a more meaningful relationship with other countries in the region. It should recognize that its isolation in the Pacific is partly a result of colonial politics in the past.



  1. anonymous
    Posted January 30, 2009 at 5:14 pm | Permalink | Reply

    The Philippines, and Filipinos,are undoubtedly Asian, even factoring in the matter of Christianity. Genetically, linguistically and culturally, we are very closely linked to Asia, and that has been the case from ancient times. Here are some pointers:

    1. The bulk of the Filipino population can be classified as “Austronesian” (modern usage) or “Malayo-Polynesian.” The accepted modern theory is that our Austronesian ancestors passed through the Philippines thousands of years ago before heading out for elsewhere, including the Pacific.

    2. All our indigenous languages are Austronesian, with closer linguistic affinities with sister Austronesian languages (i.e., Malay, Javanese, Achenese, etc.) than with any other set of languages. The huge Castillan vocabulary that has been absorbed into many Filipino languages does not make those languages Indo-Aryan tongues. (English has an enormous French and Latin derived vocab, but it is still remains a Germanic language).

    3. Christianity is an import from outside Southeast Asia, but so are all the other great “Universal Religions,” including Islam.

    4. Before the advent of the West, there were plenty of contacts between the inhabitants of the Philippine Archipelago and the rest of insular Southeast Asia. Malay language borrowings, Hindi, Buddhist and Islamic concepts, presumed genealogical connections of the native rulers, the baybayin script all came to the Philippines from nearby. Tagalogs, in particular, were involved in trade, business and regional politics, while the inhabitants of Mindanao were closely associated with happenings in areas to the south and east of the Archipelago. However, because of geography, these ancient connections were not as intense as they were between other parts of the region.

    5. Western colonialism severed these bonds…for a while. Temporarily, Filipinos looked to the US, Malaysians and Singporeans to the UK, and Indonesians to the Netherlands with greater concern that to their immediate neighbors…for obvious reasons. This is why the Philippines could not take a “detached” attitude to Indochina, because of the American alliance.

    6. But the similarities remained evident throughout on a basic cultural level, despite all the differences in so-called “high culture.” Filipino concepts such as pakikisama, utang na loob, etc., and values such as respect for elders, find much easier resonance in other Southeast Asian cultures than they do with Western cultures.

    7. ASEAN is a great experiment in bringing Southeast Asia together, but this time, defined in terms set by its ten Member States, rather than by external powers. Hopefully, ASEAN will succeed in building a new regional community.

  2. Posted January 31, 2009 at 6:22 am | Permalink | Reply

    Pacific Islander is wrong Mong, because we are mostly of the Malay race. The only people that has similarities to the Pacific islander people are the people in the mountain provinces owing to their bulky features and surprisingly they have a peculiar similarities with the Taiwanese. So it is possible that the people in mountain province can trace their roots to the Samoans. Taiwan definitely has some roots in Samoa which needs further research but Filipinos in general are not Pacific Islanders.

    • anonymous
      Posted August 18, 2015 at 9:02 am | Permalink | Reply

      Are you saying these based on 19th century books / 19th or 21st century education, or based on thorough research using 18th century books? I have seen 18th c. books that touched on this topic, and the term Pacific islanders seem right to me based on how the world actually saw the Philippine Islands / las islas Filipinas back then. As “island people”, it doesn’t mean that Filipinos are not Asians anymore. Filipinos are just unique as Asians.

  3. Posted February 1, 2009 at 12:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks to Spain. Harmonious ASEAN? I don’t think so not unless the disputes between the members are resolved like Sabah & Spratlys claims. Let’s face it some of the members has ulterior motives. ASEAN won’t be like EU the differences are too conspicuous. The Philippines remained detached from Asia living with the Hispano-American heritage. Asian by blood, culturally diverse. True it is we need their (US) help but we were hypnotized by the American pop culture leaving behind the 333-year influence. Since 16th century we already left Asia. The Philippines lose her identity. Lose the language that Rizal spoke in Noli Me Tangere. She is now a mongrel & a willing recipient of US fornication.
    A new empire remained… Manila Imperialism. She forgot Visayas and Mindanao. I shout ‘Federalismo!’

  4. Posted February 1, 2009 at 9:59 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I would tend to agree with you;geographically, it stands to reason too.

    My father in law who was one of the last British military commanders in Malaya (now Malaysia) used to describe the Philippines as islands in the Pacific.

  5. anonymous
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 9:27 am | Permalink | Reply

    I live in a filipino community and feel as if they are more like pacific islanders. Specifically palauan and guamanian people. Although they are geographically located in asia, they arent really what we think of as asian. They are an exception to the rule….Located in asia but not really asian. Their living habits are more like pacific islanders.

  6. anonymous
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 9:30 am | Permalink | Reply

    I honestly think the filipinos are misplaced in the asian category.

  7. anonymous
    Posted March 23, 2009 at 5:17 am | Permalink | Reply

    “Many Filipinos are unsure about their identity. They believe they are Asians but many of them feel closer to the West, especially the United States. They seem to be prouder of their Western upbringing than their Asian personality. Colonial mentality has been identified as one of the negative traits of many Filipinos.”

    This argument is lame. I’m Filipino American…or as I would say, American Filipino. I identify more w/American culture than Filipino, but does this make me NOT Filipino because I inhabit a land 4,000 miles away from the “Pacific Islands”? LOOK IN THE MIRROR!

    So what YOUR argument is implying is that since Filipinos don’t eat w/chopsticks but w/forks and knives like Euros…hey…they ain’t Asian…they’re something else.

    Malyasians are still Asian. Indonesians are still Asian. Give Filipinos, Malaysians, and Indonesians the same language and oh boy…they’re still damn Asians to me AND this is coming from a WESTERN perspective.

    The subject of Filipinos desire to be “Pacific Islander” also amuses me, because I remember growing up in the U.S. and meeting Hawaiians, AKA Pacific Islanders, would tell me that WE were alike because WE are ASIANS as well.

  8. anonymous
    Posted April 16, 2009 at 6:01 pm | Permalink | Reply


  9. anonymous
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 2:43 am | Permalink | Reply

    The term Asian is an extremely broad way of describing an entire country.    After all, you can be from Russian and be technically considered an Asian, not to mention most of the Middle East is in Asia.  How many of you would consider a dude from Iraq to be Asian?  Technically he is…if you look at the map and are set on geographical boundaries.  I look at the map and I consider the Philippines as part of the Pacific Islands…even though the government has clumped us as part of Asia.  Above everything else…the term Asian is supposed to be a way of describing a region/continent, not a culture.  I take no offense in being called an Asian, even though I do not see myself as one.  What I do take offense to is someone telling me what I am and what I am not. 
    Also, I am from Kaneohe, and there is a difference between Hawaiians and locals…They are not the same.  Most of Hawaii is filled with non-Hawaiians.  Think Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Caucasians.  Those are not Hawaiians.  Never in my life have I met a full blooded Hawaiian, just partial…and a very small part at that.  They are what we unfortunately call…an endangered species. 

  10. Posted March 11, 2014 at 12:16 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Sid Perez BLOG.

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