Building real confidence: National interest as the best driver of foreign policy

Dindo Manhit, President, Stratbase ADR Institute

After President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr.’s trip to China last week, the question on everyone’s mind was: What now? What does this trip mean for our territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea?

Certainly, the photos and the news reports during and after the official visit were encouraging. President Marcos Jr. met with no less than the top three government officials of China: President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and Chairman Li Zhansu of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.

Mr. Marcos and Mr. Xi did talk about the West Philippine Sea during their bilateral meeting. They agreed to establish a direct communication mechanism between China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and our own Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). This, Marcos said, would address issues and prevent possible miscommunication and incidents in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Mr. Marcos said it was he who proposed the creation of the direct communication mechanism, so official communication between the two countries would be elevated to a ministerial level. This is a confidence-building measure, he said, to improve the trust on both sides.

I wonder, however: Has not the line of communication been open for years, anyway, at least on the part of the Philippines? Has not our DFA, in fact, been actively engaging with China especially on the issue of the WPS, through the issuance of notes verbale and through meetings with Chinese authorities? The spokesman of the DFA, Teresita Daza, said that as of Nov. 22, 2022, the Philippines has issued 189 diplomatic protests to China and 61 of these were filed during the current Marcos administration.

But where has the confidence been, thus far?

The establishment of a so-called direct communication mechanism between the two countries, therefore, is hardly a new or significant step in Philippine-China relations, simply because it has always been there but has not been effective in preventing the latter’s aggressive action in the disputed territory. What would make it different from the existing mechanism and how can it assure us that China will even pick up when Philippine authorities call, listen to what they have to say, much less act with fairness and expediency on the issue?

The only thing that would make a difference is more fundamental than opening up communication lines that have always been there: China has to, first and foremost, acknowledge the jurisdiction of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and respect its July 2016 ruling recognizing the Philippines’ rights on the disputed territory. Without this, there will neither be confidence nor good faith in our dealings with each other.

The long-standing issues in the West Philippine Sea are not only political in nature. Yes, they have threatened our country’s territorial integrity and put to test our leaders’ resolve to fight for what is rightfully ours. But these issues also have profound economic and social repercussions, specifically as they have negatively affected the livelihood of our fishermen who depend on marine resources for their subsistence, as well as threatened the nation’s food security. Addressing both the welfare of fisherfolk communities and the food security of the larger population is a primordial responsibility of the government.

No less than the Senate, just before the previous year ended, passed an unnumbered resolution that denounced China’s continued harassment and intimidation tactics in Philippine maritime territory.

We should take comfort in the fact that numerous like-minded states — the United States, the European Union, Australia, Canada, and Japan, among others, have recognized and supported our arbitral victory against China.

The support from our strategic partners and allies is not mere political rhetoric. These states have committed to support us in many ways, among them coordinating and collaborating with civil maritime agencies and other regional institutions, in order to boost the Philippines’ capacity to protect its maritime zones and effectively respond to emerging security concerns.

Indeed, maritime security is increasingly becoming a point of cooperation among states. The Indo-Pacific region, of which the Philippines — and China, for that matter — is a part, is brewing with both traditional and non-traditional security threats. We believe the only way to navigate this increasingly complex dynamic is to push for a rule-based order that would govern states’ conduct, not only in maritime affairs, but in all other aspects, as well as to fortify partnerships with other countries with similar mindsets and objectives.

In a forum that we held on Jan. 5, called “Prioritizing the National Interest in Foreign Policy: Strengthening Alliances and Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific,” Dr. Ronald Holmes, President of Pulse Asia Research, said that in a survey held from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1, 2022, the United States still enjoys the trust of most Filipinos, with 89% of respondents picking the US, followed by Australia (79%) and Japan (78%). Just 33% of respondents cited China.

Approximately 80% of Filipinos believe that the protection of marine resources, environment, and strengthening our ability to defend and protect our seas as the top reasons why the Marcos administration should prioritize addressing the issues in the West Philippine Sea.

Further, when asked which country they thought the Marcos administration should work with to defend our territorial sovereignty, 84% of respondents chose the US, followed by Japan (52%) and Australia (25%).

This is where leadership from the top matters most.

It is up to President Marcos to keep the conversation on territorial integrity alive in the consciousness of Filipinos, primarily by staying true to his word that he would not give up a square inch of our territory to foreigners. While this, along with being “a friend to all and enemy to none,” could be viewed as a safe neutral posture, our foreign policy should be driven by one thing only: The best interests of the nation and the Filipino people.

The people are counting on your word, Mr. President.

This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.

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