Cooperation amid the evolving security challenges of 2023

Alynna Carlos, Program Manager of the Defense and Security Sector, Stratbase ADR Institute

Geopolitical tensions among states will continue to reshape and disrupt the security environment in the Indo-Pacific. Parallel to this, foreign policies and security strategies of states are expected to evolve as traditional and non-traditional security issues persist alongside the emergence of new challenges.

These issues range from slow post-pandemic recovery, territorial disputes, climate change, to cyber-attacks, among others. Year after year, these security challenges are becoming even more complex.

To respond to these issues, governments aggressively pursue diplomatic initiatives, particularly with the resumption of in-person meetings, which are instrumental in reaffirming commitments related to foreign policy. Marking his first diplomatic engagement for 2023, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently concluded his state visit to China.

Vowing to prioritize the national interest as the guide of his independent foreign policy, he met with Chinese President Xi Jinping and signed agreements on various sectors, emphasizing that the territorial disputes are not the only thing that define Philippine-China relations.

For foreign and security policy experts, the West Philippine Sea issue will continue to be a pressing matter. Experts and thought leaders weighed in on their predictions on security issues that will evolve or expand in 2023 during the Stratbase ADR Institute’s recent hybrid forum entitled “Prioritizing the National Interest in Foreign Policy: Strengthening Alliances and Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific.”

According to Col. Raymond Powell, US Air Force (Ret.), who leads Stanford University’s Project Myoushu, the reclamation and construction projects in the disputed area are a “disturbing evolution” serving as a challenge to concerned states. He stressed that China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea needs to be exposed so that the reputational cost to Beijing could be higher, and the Philippines’ national resilience could be stronger.

Dr. Renato de Castro, ADRi trustee and program convenor, and professor of the De La Salle University – Manila, anticipates the Taiwan Strait issue to advance with the deeper involvement of the United States and China. He also sees that such an occurrence will test the relations of the Philippines with the US, its only formal treaty ally.

Aside from these geopolitical tensions, Dr. Ronald Holmes, president of Pulse Asia Research Inc., stated that the ongoing health crisis would continue, coupled with the travel restrictions imposed on travelers coming from and going to China as it reopens this year.

Other non-traditional security issues will also be the focus of cooperation among states, according to Dr. Chester Cabalza, president and founder of the International Development and Security Cooperation. With the signing of various agreements with China, we must look closely at how initiatives on energy, agriculture, infrastructure, people and cultural exchanges, and the digital economy are to be pursued under the current administration.

On the regional level, the serious attention given to the Indo-Pacific is reflected in the publication of policies and strategies focusing on the region.

In 2022, Canada and South Korea were the latest additions to the list of states with a formal Indo-Pacific strategy alongside the ASEAN, the European Union, the QUAD (United States, Japan, Australia, and India), Japan, France, and the United Kingdom. A point of convergence among these documents is the recognition of common security issues and the commitment to cooperation as a key strategy.

In these strategies, emphasis is given to maritime security, a tight thread linking the Philippines and Indo-Pacific states. The West Philippine Sea has become a source of dispute among claimants while offering a point of cooperation among states. In the implementation of Philippine foreign policy, public opinion becomes a solid basis for prioritizing the maritime territory.

To demonstrate this, the Pulse Asia survey commissioned by Stratbase from November 27 to Dec. 1, 2022, reveals that 84% of Filipinos believe that the government should strengthen security cooperation with the United States to defend national sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.

53% of the respondents agree that protecting marine resources and the environment in Philippine territory is the most important reason to strengthen the country’s ability to defend and protect the seas. Fifty percent said that the country must strengthen the military capability of the Philippines, especially the Navy and the Coast Guard. And then, 29% support the conduct of joint maritime patrols and military exercises with allied countries.

The survey also showed that Filipinos ranked the United States, Japan, and Australia as their top three most trusted countries. Respondents believe the Marcos administration should strengthen security cooperation with these countries in defending the country’s sovereignty and territorial rights in the West Philippine Sea.

The survey results are timely, given Marcos’ visit to China, and must therefore provide guidance on succeeding diplomatic visits. On the part of maritime initiatives, both sides agreed to establish a direct communication line between their foreign ministries to manage issues and reaffirmed the importance of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Marcos even discussed the possibility of resuming discussions of joint exploration in the West Philippine Sea.

As the Marcos administration continues to foster relations with China, it must do so without setting aside the maritime issues affecting the marine resources in our territorial waters.

For Filipino fishermen, these issues are not only a matter of national security for defense officials, but a serious livelihood concern for all fishing communities facing the West Philippine Sea. For our nation. It is a direct threat to our food resources.

More importantly, these diplomatic declarations and discussions between high-level officials must progress toward the actual resolution of the issue in a way that is consistent with the national interest and the overarching rules-based international order. The administration has already cleared the first step of putting the issue on the agenda, and Filipinos now eagerly wait for the next move.

With the expansion of security issues in an increasingly interconnected Indo-Pacific, the constant solution is cooperation in a bilateral, minilateral, or multilateral approach. In a truly independent foreign policy, building strategic partnerships and alliances must be free from external pressure and interference. It must be built on the collective willingness to cooperate with like-minded neighbors amidst the anticipated security challenges in 2023.

This article was originally published in philstar Global. Image Source: Philippines’s Office of the Press Secretary / AFP.

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