Security Should Share the Limelight – Reviewing the APEC Leaders’ Summit

(Part 2 of 2)

Angelica Mangahas, Deputy Executive Director & Security Specialist at the ADR Institute

Earlier last week, I advocated keeping trade at the top of the agenda at the APEC Leaders’ Summit. Despite the stated goals of APEC and my own hopes, however, there is no avoiding that trade issues have not taken center stage nor been shielded from the security dimensions of Filipino relations with the rest of the Asia-Pacific region. If this perspective seems inevitable to today’s observers, this wasn’t always the case. Not too long ago, for example, Philippine and Chinese officials shared a repeated refrain that the territorial disputes did not reflect the entirety of the two countries’ relations.


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This year’s Summit demonstrated, again, how APEC’s relatively low stakes make it easy for prevailing disagreements to frame news from the gatherings. In Manila, the South China Sea disputes have captured the lion’s share of Filipinos’ foreign policy attention. The tone is clearest in the national press, whose headlines the day after the Summit centered on the sideline commitments related to security, leaving trade largely below the fold.

The Philippines’ biggest takeaways from the Leaders’ Summit validate that framing. With no APEC-wide trade, investment, or customs agreement on the cards, “minilateral” (between only a few member economies) and bilateral meetings proved the launch-points for high-profile cooperation. For the Philippines specifically, most bilateral cooperative outcomes related to international or transnational security concerns; only two new exploratory initiatives, with Russia and with Chile, dealt explicitly with trade.


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In terms of security, the outcomes of the Leaders’ Summit reflected the relative warmth of our ties with various neighbors and their approach to the maritime disputes. The United States and our fellow US allies led in providing positive gestures for security cooperation. The United States announced that it would transfer two ships to the Philippine Navy, while Japan and the Philippines announced that the two countries had begun work on an agreement for further defense transfers. South Korea and Australia were less energetic, with South Korea expressing support for Philippine military modernization (South Korea backed the Philippines’ purchase of fighter jets from a Korean firm) and Australia reaffirming its strong continued relationship with the Philippines.

The Philippines and Vietnam, both claimants in the South China Sea disputes, forged a much-anticipated strategic partnership with both security and economic elements; the implications of the agreement are not yet well understood and will likely be revealed only in the weeks or months ahead.

With the Summit coming days after the terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, and against Russian aircraft over the Sinai, terror concerns made it to the final leaders’ declaration, which condemned all such acts and stressed the need for international cooperation and solidarity against terrorism. Transnational crime made it to the bilateral talks, with new Philippines-Mexico, Philippines-Colombia, and Philippines-Russia cooperation on narcotics controls.


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Although new trade agreements were not on the agenda, the Philippines did take steps to explore further trade relations with Russia and Chile, agreeing with the former to establish a joint commission on trade and economic cooperation and with the latter to study the benefits of a bilateral free trade agreement.

A joint feasibility study with Chile on an FTA is especially welcome, as a future FTA with the country could reduce roadblocks toward Philippine accession to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). In another encouraging sign, Canada, an original TPP member, said that it would support the Philippines’ possible accession to the agreement. Philippine officials have spoken on the country’s interest in joining the deal as soon as possible.

As I wrote on Tuesday, the accession process will take a good amount of time as the country will need to undertake constitutional and other legal reforms, ratify prerequisite international treaties, and surmount other political obstacles as may arise on the path to approval by all original TPP members. It will only become more important for this government or its successor to initiate a domestic discussion of the economic reforms necessary to better secure and share the gains of trade.


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In the coming weeks, trade may be shunted ever further into the backseat as Philippine and other leaders head to the next round of political summits, including the now ongoing ASEAN Summit in Kuala Lumpur. Economics underpins our attractiveness as an international partner on the foreign policy issues Filipinos also hold dear—whether on security, migrant labor, or environmental practice. Even as the spotlight on APEC fades, we should resist the temptation to take our eyes off trade.

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