Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute
Presidential candidates have been campaigning and presenting their respective policy priorities drawn from the experiences and missteps of the Duterte administration. A prominent issue that reverberated throughout the current administration’s term relates to foreign policy and national security issues, specifically the engagement strategy with China in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
In a broader context, the Philippines is currently navigating a changed world order wherein state power and influence cannot be measured by defense and military capabilities alone. Increased globalization and global engagement have made interdependence critical for state development, resource and means generation, and national security. Specifically, the Indo-Pacific region is at the center of this geopolitical shift due to its growing strategic and economic importance. Given these, the next administration must be able to integrate current circumstances into a foreign and security policy to safeguard and promote Philippine interests.
President Duterte’s change of tone from the July 12, 2016 arbitral ruling to an appeasement policy brought about a chain of consequences not only in the country’s interests over its maritime territory, but simultaneously, its national interests over socioeconomic development, critical technology innovation and security, and political and defense credibility in the international stage. This shift also allowed China to develop further its capabilities in the military, diplomatic, technology, and economic domain which challenged the regional security architecture and status quo.
The failure of the appeasement policy was characterized by the undelivered economic promises and continued coercion in WPS. While the creation of the 2018 National Security Strategy (NSS) served as a good initiative, the document failed to contextualize the current security environment and provide a future-oriented direction in addressing issues emanating from it. Moreover, its implementation was established on an administration committed to the China pivot which ultimately prioritized a single state for preferential policies and hindered progress in the outlined objectives of the NSS. As such, China continues to reject the merits of the 2016 arbitral ruling and go against the grain of established international laws and norms with its gray zone operations and maritime expansion. It has also used its political, diplomatic, and economic power as leverage over the Philippines to undermine the security issues in the maritime space. China used its political power by keeping its ties warm with Mr. Duterte directly, its diplomatic power through development and humanitarian aid, its economic power augmenting investments against other states.
The lessons learned from previous administrations must be transformed into better strategies and policies. The incoming president must also primarily commit to Philippine interests and be more tactical and strategic in the use of all possible resources.
In the latest special studies of Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, “A National Security Strategy for the 17th Philippine President: The Case for A Limited Balancing Strategy” and “The Great Cauldron: China, US, and the New Cold War in the Indo-Pacific,” several policy recommendations were provided to mitigate the current threats and avert future threats related to the China issue.
The next administration must be able to update the country’s security strategy based on the 2016 arbitral ruling. Through the NSS, the external security threat posed by China’s maritime expansion and aggression will be formally acknowledged and provide a framework for streamlining proper actions. In relation to this, the next president must also maintain a firm, consistent, and uncompromising foreign policy and security stand in the maritime issue—that no state should destabilize the rules-based order and transgress the territorial integrity of other states. Further, the Philippines must also be able to optimize and update its defense agreements with key and reliable allies in the region. Due to the growing military power of China, the Philippines should utilize its expansive network in securing the freedom of the seas and to counter aggressive behavior from China’s maritime militia. More importantly, the defense agreements with the United States must be revisited to ensure maximal inter-operability vis-à-vis new and emerging threats. Simultaneously, it should continue the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ modernization program to strengthen its capability to defend the country’s territorial integrity and national sovereignty.
This article was originally published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer commentary.