Thinking Beyond Crises: Developing a Vision for Philippine Foreign Policy

Dindo Manhit, Stratbase-ADRi

To everyone’s attention, foreign policy, like national defense, has become a regular feature in the 2016 presidential campaigns. Candidates have used their foreign policy ideas, especially as they relate to the Philippines’ rocky relationship with China, to demonstrate their patriotism and to undermine their opponents’ loyalty or leadership in the public eye. The candidates have gone so far as to delve into specifics, questioning the purchase or postponement of specific weapons systems1; outlining acceptable trade-offs2; or advocating ‘joint venture’ solutions3 to the disputes in the West Philippine Sea.

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Sen. Grace Poe responds to a question from Davao City Mayor Duterte over what she would do if she learned that China had blown up two Philippine Navy ships (Interaksyon)

It is a good sign when candidates are willing to get into the nitty-gritty of issues. It shows that they have done some homework on the Philippines’ relationship with its neighbors and major powers. At the same time, candidates should not let the details obscure the bigger picture, which is broader than the maritime and territorial disputes and broader still than the Philippines’ relationship with any single country.

The president’s role is to provide vision. Although they must have a mind for practicality, they should not set out with a near-term, implementation-only mindset. The world is filled with moving parts, and more and more often Filipinos will be affected by decisions that are made and events that occur at a long distance from the country and from the president’s control. In the middle of these many factors, it makes more sense for would-be presidents to talk about the country’s primary interests, the government’s tools, and their personal principles than it does to talk about the specific positions they would take while president.

These three angles, the country’s interests, the government’s tools, and the president’s principles, will form the foundation of the Philippines’ next foreign policy strategy. Moreover, if contemplated early on, the resulting viewpoint will be felt throughout the range of measures that Malacañang, the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of National Defense and other agencies can take. Seen this way, our foreign policy will not be limited to fire-fighting a blaze in the West Philippine Sea nor evacuating Filipinos abroad.

In our book, Thinking Beyond Politics, ADRi trustee, Dr. Renato De Castro discusses the expansion of the Philippine foreign policy agenda from its traditional focus on protecting overseas Filipinos and promoting trade to include safeguarding Philippine sovereignty and maritime territorial defense. On this front, at least, the candidates are in agreement, with each having made remarks on the current administration’s foreign policy. Dr. De Castro observes that more than before, engaging international bodies, like the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, and cooperating with allies and partners, such as the United States and Japan, are a national priority. Thus far, our candidates have not articulated clear visions over the importance of international institutions nor the degree and kind of relationship that the Philippines should have with allies and ‘friendly’ nations, including our neighbors in ASEAN.

In guidance for the next administration, Dr. De Castro looks at how we can enhance the Philippines’ foreign policy establishment, so that six years from now our own institutions can be even better positioned to deal with the changing international landscape. To effectively handle both traditional and emerging foreign policy demands, Dr. De Castro recommends that the Philippines invest in expanding the Foreign Service and training staff in gathering intelligence, reporting economic and political developments, engaging foreign publics, and related skillsets in addition to those used in protecting nationals and providing consular services. Moreover, as Philippine foreign affairs take on a greater security dimension, he argues for the passage of a National Security Act creating a legislated National Security Council that would oversee an intra-agency approach to territorial defense.

In conclusion, candidates should focus less on military tactics and more on developing an overarching vision for the Philippines and its role in the world. In doing so, they will be better able not only to survive crises, but to leave behind a Philippines that is better placed to gain from engaging with the world.

To read the entirety of Dr. de Castro’s article, click here.

1 Kathrina Charmaine Alvarez, “Aquino sneers at Poe over defense spending issue,” GMA News, 31 March 2016.
2 Germelina Lacorte, “Duterte tells China: Build us a railway and let’s set aside differences for a while,” Philippine Inquirer, 29 February 2016.
3 Paterno Esmaquel II, “Binay: “China has money, we need capital,” Rappler, 14 April 2015.

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