Philippine foreign policy in a year of change

Amb. Albert del Rosario, Chairman of the Stratbase ADR Institute for Strategic and International Studies

Around the world, people have demanded change from their governments. New administrations take new approaches, adapt to new realities and adjust to the policies of others.

The world that we face today has changed markedly in the last decade. The Philippines and other Southeast Asian states are grappling with increasing pressures – in security and in economics – that have altered the ways in which we seek cooperation and ensure the proper protection of our national and regional interests.

Some things do not change, however, or at least they change at a far slower pace. Every country has interests that are fundamental and enduring – interests that affect the entire nation, in important ways, over a long duration. These interests form the foundation of every government initiative, including foreign policy. Because these interests last, even as governments change, not all of their policies shift profoundly.

On the first anniversary of this administration, I have been asked to share my thoughts on the current direction of Philippine foreign policy. I have shared my humble thoughts on previous occasions, and so I do not believe that our government is a stranger to my views. Nevertheless, I would like to use this occasion to step back and take a broad look at where we have gone and what I see to be the main bones of contention – the new directions – that I find of greatest concern.

My concerns can be summed up in three main areas. First, I see a divergence in how we interpret the Philippine national interest. Second, I see a variance in how we approach our friends and partners. Third, I see a difference in how we seek to improve our international position. To end, I would also like to look at our areas of agreement. While I may not share all the views of this administration, there are areas in which I wholeheartedly support its efforts.

Interpreting the national interest

I have disagreed with this administration, or at least some of its main proponents, in two ways of viewing the Philippines’ most important interests.

My first view is that our leadership should be no less than categorical on protecting our sovereignty and our national patrimony. This refers to our stance on what is ours, by history and by law, in the West Philippine Sea and all throughout our archipelago. I believe that this notion, as enshrined in our Constitution, is at the core of our responsibility to be stewards of our resources for all Filipinos, including future generations.

We cannot trade away our sovereignty or sovereign rights – and we should not give even the impression that we are willing to do so.

My second view is that, as a smaller state on the world stage, the Philippines has a deep and abiding interest in working within and working to fortify international law. There can be no doubt that Philippine interests are best promoted when all states, of any size and strength, adhere to the commonly agreed upon standards that govern countries’ rights. Through international law, a state of a hundred million people can be the equal of one that is ten times its size.

We cannot forget what the Philippines has gained from the arbitral tribunal ruling, and may still hope to gain, through wise and appropriate leadership, from the protection of the rules-based system. We cannot weaken that protection by picking and choosing when to promote the law and when to ignore it. To do otherwise is to unravel the efforts of generations – Filipinos and fellow members of the global village of nations – for the exigencies of the moment.

This is a matter on which we can pay more than lip service and do more than hold the line. As the chair of ASEAN this year, we should be finding ways to encourage our fellow Southeast Asian states to take more responsibility for our region, not distancing ourselves from sensitive but necessary initiatives like a binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that promotes the rule of law. We are counted on to uphold ASEAN centrality and uplift our long-held, region-wide position on respect for UNCLOS and other matters of international law.

Approaching friends and partners

As our nation’s leader, President Duterte is the chief architect of Philippine foreign policy. He has used his powers to pursue what is optimistically called an “independent” foreign policy by, in effect, moving away from our long-held relationships. While this has attracted plenty of media attention, both at home or abroad, I am not confident that it has attracted any advantage to the Philippines.

Over the last year, the president has declared, among other things, that our country is separating from the United States; that we will depend on China; that we are realigning our ideological flow; and that we will be working with Russia and China to create a new world order. Since making these statements, some members the Cabinet have modified or clarified the president’s vision. This practice appears to be condoned by the president himself, since he has also commented – I suppose in jest – that perhaps only two of five statements he makes are true.

To start with, a genuinely independent foreign policy should not, at the very least, be based on misstatements and contradictions. Instead, it should be based on a thorough review of which countries share the Philippines’ most important interests. This approach is not mendicancy – it acknowledges that we can achieve more together than we could if we acted alone out of misplaced pride.

Because we have a variety of interests, some short term and others long term, there is no need to take a zero-sum approach. We have not needed to choose between foreign powers or to ignore the common ground between our goals and those of international organizations. As one example, on the South China Sea, we could have approached the UN General Assembly to counter the threat of war against the development of the Philippines of its resources within its Exclusive Economic Zone and Extended Continental Shelf, a right provided for in UNCLOS.

As we have pursued the current course, we have endangered the tangible benefits that cooperation has offered our country. With the European Union, we have exposed our preferential trade status through the Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) scheme – a scheme that allows thousands of Philippine goods to more easily access the European market. Earlier this year, we lost the opportunity to host a visiting delegation of businessmen, led by Princess Astrid of Belgium. In May, we announced the rejection of EU projected multi-year grants estimated at nearly US$300M.  Moreover, the negotiations for our free trade agreement has been placed in jeopardy.

As is well known, there are currently complications to our US grants from the Millennium Challenge Corporation amounting to US$400M. Until now, there has also been no appropriation for Foreign Military Financing for 2018.

Some have pointed to the United States’ intelligence support in Marawi as a sign that our relationship has not gone off course. I would say that their continuing support demonstrates the importance of our traditional friends and partners, who have helped us not only in this instance, but also on many occasions past. Moreover, this support is not because of this administration’s efforts, but rather despite of them. If we do not want to be taken for granted by others, we should also not take others for granted.

Nevertheless, I am hopeful that our ties with the EU and the US may recover their old strength, even at the highest levels. Their patience and continuing efforts, together with those of countries like Japan and Australia, show how likeminded countries with shared interests can still find areas of very positive cooperation.

Improving our international position

Does the embrace of China compensate for what is being lost? There are still many questions ahead for the much-paraded infrastructure financing that has been offered by China. The government can afford more transparency on this point. It could start by publishing the rates and terms of these loans, as well as being open about how it will assess the best way to finance our critically needed infrastructure projects.

Because our country has longstanding relationships with other loan providers, such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and Japanese government, we are familiar with the high standards that they have in place to vet projects and contractors. On the converse, we do not know if the same quality standards will be in place for the new loans that we take. As it stands, the track record of Chinese loans in this country leave much to be desired. As such, there are too few assurances that these projects are bankable – not bankrupt-able.

By one analysis, if the Philippines should exhaust all of the promised Chinese credit, we would then have the second-to-the-worst debt to GDP ratio in the world. If true, such a move would increase our debt service burden, undermine our long-term creditworthiness, and place our national budget under strain.

Above and beyond these procedural safeguards, more concerning is that there is little to separate our political disagreements and any financial relationship. Because there is no ‘firewall’ that separates the two, it is not beyond belief that the Chinese government may use their credit as political leverage. By entering into weighty financial agreements, this administration may end up not only tying its own hands, but also the hands of successor administrations. Such an arrangement does not bode well for the “next generation” that may eventually be tasked to resolve present and anticipated issues.

China’s militarization of reclaimed areas in the South China Sea, which has continued since President Duterte entered office, and President Xi’s alleged threat of war against the Philippines clearly demonstrates just how the China perceives our independent foreign policy, even in an atmosphere that is already favorable to their interests.

What lies ahead

I do not believe that an independent foreign policy should focus on pleasing China at the expense of almost everyone else.  Instead, Philippine core interests imply that we should open the hand of friendship to as many of our friends and neighbors as possible. We should endeavor to have an open and genuinely respectful relationship with the People’s Republic of China, but not one that demands that we rush to their side in a blinded fashion.

Ultimately, however, I remain hopeful. While I have serious disagreements with this administration’s foreign policy, I believe that our country can still explore new ways to realize a truly independent foreign policy for the Philippines over the next five years of President Duterte’s term.

For example, I wholeheartedly support the president’s engagement with Malaysia and Indonesia in building a common effort against the threat of terrorism in our region. I also very much support the President’s efforts to reach out the community of Filipinos overseas – I can see how much this means to our fellow Filipinos in the Middle East, East Asia, and around the world.  We furthermore congratulate the president on his choice of the economic and defense teams, who are viewed to be doing an excellent job.

A great deal has changed over one year and I expect even more change to occur before the president’s next anniversary. I can only hope that this administration can see that not every change is necessarily for the better, that there are some constants to Philippine foreign policy that have stayed constant for a reason – that ultimately, we are a peace-loving people, steadfast in our principles to do what is right and firm in our belief on the potential of fruitful international cooperation.

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