Thinking Beyond Today’s Variables: A Principled Approach to National Security

Dindo Manhit, Stratbase-ADRi President

While the national campaigns sprint to the finish line, foreign policy and national security concerns continue to press a heavy weight on the shoulders of Filipino decision-makers here and now. The country’s transition has presented an opportune moment for others in our backyard to improve their positions in advance of the next administration. In recent weeks, for example, the Abu Sayyaf has increased its activity, capturing new hostages and threatening to kill other ones. On Monday night, they made good on their threat and beheaded John Ridsdel, a Canadian they have held since last October. The same night, the news reported that China agreed with Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos that the South China Sea disputes should not affect China-ASEAN relations—damaging the organization’s role as the central forum for discussions, which the Philippines has supported.

As recent as these issues are, they could not have been addressed on Sunday night’s debate. Yet, in an ideal world, this would hardly have mattered. By now, our candidates would have publicly defined the principles of their foreign policy and national security policy. More than their course of action during a crisis, the president’s worldview matters a great deal; to see its impact, one need only compare Presidents Ramos and Estrada on achieving peace in Mindanao, and Presidents Arroyo and Aquino on our relationship with China. Yet, watching the debates, you could believe that some candidates are running to be Chief Crisis Negotiator or Top Tactician, not the country’s top diplomat and Commander in Chief.

On multiple occasions in our book, Thinking Beyond Politics, and previously on our Spark blog, we have underlined the importance of defining principles and working to build institutions. The number of moving parts in national security, both within and outside the country, mean that no administration will be able to perfectly foresee events or exercise control as these events occur. Despite this, the next government will still be expected to step up as new friends, foes, technologies, natural disasters, and social movements appear. The presidential candidates must thus shift their focus away from strategies calculated based on today’s variables to reflecting on the mindset and instruments they will call on throughout their term in office.

Image Source: The Straits Times

In recent presentations, representatives of the National Security Advisor have said that they continue to see the West Philippine Sea as the country’s top security concern. Their assessment is reflected in government action: in his Thinking Beyond Politics chapter on national defense, ADRi Trustee Dr. Renato De Castro observes how under the current administration, the AFP has reoriented itself away from internal security operations toward a focus on developing maritime capabilities. Following this track, Dr. De Castro recommends that we give a target of 2% of GNI for defense spending, and seek all possible benefits under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Dr. De Castro’s approach is focused on strengthening the instruments that the next and subsequent presidents will have at hand to better protect the Filipino people. To ensure that improvements can be institutionalized, he further recommends ending the ‘revolving door’ in the AFP’s Joint Chiefs of Staff and provide a fixed term for the chairman and service commanders. In this way, we reduce disruptions to the modernization process.

When it comes to the military, modernization and reforms will take time. Thus, a president must be prepared to think even beyond his or her own term in office. It’s for this same reason that they should be especially careful in ensuring the foundations for growth are strengthened in Mindanao, which has long reaped the unintended consequences of many presidential turn-arounds. Pursuing and concluding the peace process, sealing the deal on an implementing law, and engaging the Philippine National Police will be highly important in promoting law and order throughout the country. Ultimately, change easily made is easily undone.

To read the entirety of “Thinking Beyond Politics”, click here.

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