How should the Philippines engage the world?

September 23, 2016

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase-Albert del Rosario Institute (ADRi) for Strategic and International Studies

Image Source: The Philippine Star

An analysis on the government’s “independent” foreign policy

President Rodrigo Duterte has begun to chart a new foreign policy for the Philippines. His path, which he terms “independent,” is one that reviews and realigns the Philippines’ friendships with other countries. While the president’s mandate to define the country’s approach to foreign relations is unassailable, the administration should nevertheless reconsider its strategy in terms of potentially alienating established economic and security partners. Instead, the Philippines should maintain its good relations with trusted friends and pursue constructive relations with all of its neighbors, in both word and deed.

There are three principles of foreign policy-making that serve as guiding principles for the field. First, a country’s approach must defend the country’s fundamental interests. These include the security and integrity of our territory, the health of our economy, and the protection of Filipino citizens abroad. Second, it must seek to achieve its goals while espousing national and universal values, such as upholding our commitments and complying with or enforcing international law. Third and important for a less-developed country, it must strive for all of the above in the most efficient or least costly manner.

Independence must contribute to our overall foreign policy objectives

It goes without saying that Filipinos want a foreign policy that is independent, at least if the term is understood as a policy crafted by Filipinos without undue pressure from other countries. If the president’s aim is a foreign policy that resists external demands and elevates the national interest, he would be upholding his duties under the Constitution. However, in light of the three principles, independence alone is not sufficient for a sound foreign policy.

Beyond an independent stance lies the complex dynamics that will directly and indirectly affect the administration’s objectives of national development. Foremost among these is the ten-point economic manifesto envisioned to transform the country into a true economic tiger and a force in the region. An unwelcoming atmosphere in the Philippines could easily dampen the country’s economic relationships. In the United States, as elsewhere, private investors have reportedly grown skittish about the Philippines’ prospects. The US economy is the Philippines’ largest source of private investment and second-largest export market after Japan.

Unfortunately, in President Duterte’s case, the term ‘independent’ appears to be shorthand for pushing the United States away and pulling China closer. Although his spokesmen and secretaries would issue follow-up statements to clarify the president’s meaning, these do little to mask his sentiments on the Philippines-US relationship. Any reader paying attention to the past few weeks’ news comes away with the sense that the Philippines is not looking to strengthen its ties with its traditional ally.

The country can pursue its independence without squandering its hard-earned, advantageous relationships with other countries. At the end of the day, the government’s new stance must be calibrated to ensure that it does not compromise the administration’s ten-point plan and the Philippines’ overall economic security.

Drastic shifts can undermine the government’s credibility

A cavalier take on the Philippines’ international ties, as evinced by the president’s off-the-cuff remarks, could have a very real impact on the country’s fundamental interests.

At the same time, we cannot miss the fact that President Duterte’s statements mark a philosophical, not only geopolitical, shift in the Philippines’ approach to foreign affairs. In contrast to the Aquino administration’s officially ‘principled’ tack, which did build on the country’s ties with the United States, but at the same time alienated China, the new approach signals an ostensibly more balanced view of the Philippines’ interests.

Some have hoped that Duterte’s early overtures to China would help our country to reaffirm the view that, although we welcome the Arbitral Tribunal’s favorable ruling, the situation in the West Philippine Sea need not encompass the entirety of the Philippines-China relationship. Although our economic relationship with China is not as strong as with other countries, there are tangible benefits to encouraging greater trade, leveraging Chinese funds for infrastructure, and engaging in educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges. Steps toward this end would benefit Filipino and Chinese citizens alike, not least by helping build trust and understanding between our peoples.

However, the government appears to be warming up with China less for these benefits and more to signal a quick break from the United States, which is unfortunate. It has created this impression by taking strong measures beyond the requirements of prudence. It is one thing for the administration to downplay the Arbitral Tribunal’s favorable ruling, out of a fear of possible retribution. It is another thing entirely to halt patrols with the United States and limit them to a minimal 12 nautical mile distance—far less than the full 200 nautical mile spread of the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

By taking such drastic steps, the administration gives the impression of swinging wildly and insincerely instead of taking smaller, but more meaningful steps toward friendly relations. Part of why such steps give the impression of insincerity is that they do not fit into the aforementioned principles for foreign policy. The decisions to halt joint patrols, limit the patrolling distance, and even purchase weapons from China, seem designed to please Beijing but not defend the safety and integrity of our country nor sustain our commitment to uphold and help enforce international law.

If it wants to build good ties and earn the respect of our neighbors, the administration must also reconsider whether big gestures are the way to go. Being careful with our pronouncements and calibrated with our actions will send a more meaningful signal not only to China, but also to all of the Philippines’ international partners. Such care will help the president and his team achieve the Philippines’ foreign policy objectives.

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