Public sentiment on foreign security cooperation

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

The Philippines is putting to action new partners in national security. Last Wednesday, President Duterte said he had sought China’s assistance in patrolling regional waters. A day later, he reaffirmed his intention to buy weapons from Russia, specifically precision-guided munitions or “smart bombs.” There is no doubt that his administration has been clear in its efforts to grow its network of support for the armed forces’ internal security objectives. The only doubts may be in public opinion.

Cooperation with China is more than economic. This administration’s focus on domestic security comes in stark contrast with the Aquino years. The Aquino administration had paid more attention to territorial defense. Moreover, it botched its best-known counter-terror mission in Mamasapano. Unfortunately, today the threat persists: The Davao City bombing by the Maute Group is one stark example. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also recently confirmed that the Abu Sayyaf is holding 25 hostages.

Yet, as valuable as cooperation can be, Mr. Duterte’s request to Beijing means that his administration can’t maintain that its growing relationship with China is purely economic. Given the public’s low regard for the Philippines’ new partners, the administration should expect to explain its approaches. Ultimately, it will need to think about how to manage its security objectives and diplomatic goals in light of public opinion.

New partners aren’t trusted. The Stratbase ADR Institute commissioned Pulse Asia to survey Filipinos on their views on some aspects of foreign relations. Independently, Pulse Asia also asked about Filipinos’ trust level in different countries and organizations. Last week, Pulse Asia presented its findings: Seventy-six percent of Filipinos trust the United States and 70 percent trust Japan. Only 38 percent trust China, among which only 7 percent have a great deal of trust. And 22 percent said they had no trust in China at all. Russia posted similar numbers.

Moreover, 84 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement “The Philippine government should assert its right on the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.”

The administration responded to the results by reasserting that its approach was in line with the public’s wishes. But this reassurance contradicts other official remarks that we can “set aside” the ruling under the right conditions.

No blanket disapproval of cooperation. The respondents were also asked about their willingness to “explore defense or security cooperation with China and Russia rather than the United States.” Forty-seven percent agreed, but there were 34 percent who may agree/disagree or were undecided. The respondents’ doubt could reflect the vagueness of the question, but it could also signal that Filipinos are not against cooperation offhand.

Pulse Asia showed that those with greater trust in China tended to agree with the statement on cooperation (24 percent). The reverse was also true: Those with less trust in China tended to disagree (21 percent). It appears that underlying trust is key to public support. Building the public’s trust with new partners will need to be an important consideration for the administration as it seeks to sustain its growing relationship with China.

No laurels for traditional partners. Finally, the respondents were asked to agree or disagree with the statement “Security/defense relations with the US have been beneficial to the Philippines.” Filipinos are split: Forty-seven percent agreed with the statement nationwide, with 55 percent agreeing in the National Capital Region, an even 50 percent in Luzon, and 43 percent in Mindanao. Clearly, Filipinos’ trust in the United States does not automatically translate to its military activities in the country.

There are no straightforward answers for this administration, but one thing is sure: At the end of the day, Filipinos have their country’s best interests at heart. It will be up to the administration to demonstrate the value of specific policies, if it wishes to be in keeping with public sentiment.

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