Rethinking Regional Alliances: An opportunity for the next government

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

The evolving nature of security threats in the Indo-Pacific has underscored the importance of multilateral cooperation and inclusiveness. For instance, the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has exemplified how multilateralism can strengthen the capacity of regional organizations and national governments to assess, prevent and effectively respond to the health and social challenges. Since these threats are transnational in origin, leaders and policymakers across the region must work together in order to establish a multilateral system that will enable states to collectively craft policies and institutional arrangements that can minimize risks and deliver shared results.

As new and complex security threats continue to emerge, there is an opportunity for states in the Indo-Pacific to rethink their policies and renew their commitment to multilateral cooperation including security and economic partnerships. In the context of the Philippines, the upcoming 2022 national election is a chance to create a more responsive foreign and security policy that can build upon existing partnerships with like-minded countries such as its long-time ally, the United States. Doing so will allow the Philippines to reinforce its role and significantly contribute to the conduct of regional affairs.

The relevance of multilateralism was echoed during our last Stratbase Albert Del Rosario Institute virtual town hall discussion in partnership with the US Embassy and the National Defense College of the Philippines. Experts, government officials, and members of the diplomatic community exchanged their views on the importance of multilateral cooperation and the future of the US-Philippines alliance. Since 1946, the United States and the Philippines have fostered close cooperation particularly in the areas of defense, trade, culture, and education. The United States has also been a reliable partner for the Philippines in the promotion of democratic governance, inclusive development, and security and development cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

Chargé d’Affaires ad interim of the US Embassy, Heather Variava, noted that one of the key areas of cooperation between the two countries is the response to the ongoing health crisis. The United States has facilitated more than 16 million doses of vaccines and provided more than $39 million in pandemic-related assistance to the Philippines. Multilateral cooperation in these key areas allows not only deepening relations between the two countries — but it also contributes to the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.

Security threats such as the COVID-19 pandemic have also magnified the great power dynamics in the Indo-Pacific. In maintaining peace and stability, Philippine Ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez highlighted the continued relevance of the alliance and the imperative of keeping it functional and effective for the mutual security of both states. Despite the Duterte administration’s appeasement policy towards China, the alliance between the Philippines and the United States has continued to grow and endure challenges.

The US-Philippines alliance transcends security and military engagements. Senior Foreign Policy Advisor of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Ambassador Jennifer Galt, emphasized that people-to-people ties, economic exchanges, and the fight against climate change also form the foundation of the alliance. On the economic front, Ms. Galt reported that trade in Southeast Asia is about $3.4 billion, and in the Philippines alone, US foreign direct investments were recorded at $161.6 million in 2020. Recognizing the ongoing territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, the ambassador also mentioned that China’s aggressive behavior also constitutes a threat to sovereignty and economic security. Hence, the future of the alliance lies in its stability against the ongoing geopolitical conflicts, and also in continuously strengthening economic and trade relations.

The filing of candidacy for the 2022 Philippine national elections has already started. In the next few months, Filipino voters will have the chance to elect new leaders who will steer the country’s foreign and security policy. As the country treads towards a change in leadership, it is vital for voters to carefully examine the candidates, mindful not to elect government leaders with a defeatist and capitulatory attitude, particularly in terms of foreign policy initiatives. The past six years should serve as a lesson for our future leaders to build back better.

The Filipino people cannot afford another six years of this defeatist and myopic leadership that gradually weakened the position of the country in the region. Further, such policy has compromised the country’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea and allowed continued violations of our sovereign rights and unabated theft and destruction of marine resources in our Exclusive Economic Zone.

Security threats brought by states like China as well as the evolving security architecture of the Indo-Pacific serve as a strong basis to retain and bolster multilateral cooperation among states, big and small alike. The stability and peace in the region lie in the strong network of alliances that can effectively manage regional power shifts and emergent security threats in the traditional and non-traditional modes.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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