Beyond an Independent Foreign Policy for the Philippines

Thinking Beyond Politics
Victor A. Manhit

Posted on September 21, 2016

For several months now, President Duterte has indicated that he would improve the Philippines’ relations with China and reduce his predecessor’s enthusiasm for the United States. To borrow a phrase from Washington, Duterte is “rebalancing” the country’s foreign policy. More than a simple warming of ties, his overtures have even extended to offering to buy Chinese-made weapons for the military.

The President has indicated his intentions through a series of boldly phrased comments, the height of which was cursing in the midst of talking about US President Barack Obama. His comments have taken observers aback, as Duterte’s brash style -- which he once promised to tone down -- is not a common sight at diplomatic gatherings. As a result, there is the risk that Duterte’s manner will draw more attention than the greater portion of his message: that our foreign policy is about to turn more “independent.”

It goes without saying that every Filipino should support an approach to foreign policy that is both crafted by Filipinos and that elevates the national interest above all else. If the President’s aim is a foreign policy that conforms to the country’s principles and not to external pressure, he would simply be upholding his duties under the Constitution.

In Duterte’s case, however, the term “independent” appears to mean something different. It has become shorthand for pushing the United States away and pulling China closer. Although his spokesmen and secretaries would issue follow-up statements that will hopefully “clarify” his meaning, these do little to mask the president’s sentiments on the Philippines-US relationship. Any reader paying attention to the past few weeks’ news comes away with the sense that the Philippines is not looking to strengthen its ties with its traditional ally.

This new policy may be independent, but it must go further to prove that it will be good. A good foreign policy typically has three components: it defends fundamental interests (e.g. the safety and integrity of our nation, the health of our economy, or the protection of our citizens abroad); it espouses Filipino and universal values (e.g. upholding our commitments or complying with international law); and does all of the above in the least costly manner. More than focusing only on independence, the President should lay out how its new foreign policy will be good for Filipinos.

The significance of the President’s statements is how they appear to mark a philosophical, not only geopolitical, shift in approach to foreign affairs. We say goodbye to the Aquino administration’s officially “principled” tack, which conveniently built on the country’s ties with the United States, but which at the same time alienated China, and say hello to an ostensibly more pragmatic view of the Philippines’ interests and role in the world.

Some hope that Duterte’s early overtures to China would help our country to reaffirm the view that, although we welcome the Arbitral Tribunal’s favorable ruling, the situation in the West Philippine Sea need not encompass the entirety of the Philippines-China relationship. There are benefits to encouraging greater trade, leveraging Chinese funds for infrastructure, and engaging in educational, cultural, and scientific exchanges. Such efforts would benefit Filipino and Chinese citizens alike, not least by helping build trust and understanding between our people.

However, the government appears to approach the country’s ties with China less for these benefits and more to signal a quick break from the United States. It has created this impression by taking strong measures beyond the requirements of prudence. It is one thing for the administration to keep mum on the Arbitral Tribunal’s favorable ruling, but it is another thing for it to announce that it would halt patrols with the US and limit them to a minimal 12 nautical mile distance. By taking drastic steps, the administration gives the impression of swinging wildly and insincerely instead of taking smaller, but more meaningful, steps toward friendly relations.

At the same time, neither does the administration stand to gain from alienating the United States. If it had wanted to de-emphasize the military alliance, it could have quietly postponed high-level meetings between the two countries’ representatives, declined to define further areas to be covered by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, or redirect cooperation to other issues. These would have sent a more meaningful signal than the guessing game that has occurred over the President’s comments and clarifications, which make the Philippines look erratic and unreliable.

Finally, we must not lose sight of the fact that a cavalier take on Philippines’ international ties could have a broader impact beyond the country’s security. An unwelcoming atmosphere could easily dampen the Philippines’ strong economic relationships, including with the United States, where investors reportedly have grown skittish about the Philippines’ prospects. The US economy is the Philippines’ largest source of private investment and is its second-largest export market after Japan.

Beyond an “independent” stance in foreign policy is the complex dynamics that will directly and indirectly affect the ten-point economic manifesto envisioned to raise the country into an economic tiger. The country can pursue its independence while not squandering its hard-earned, advantageous relationships with other countries. The government’s independent foreign policy must not compromise our economic security.

Prof. Victor Andres “Dindo” C. Manhit is the founder and managing director of the Stratbase Group and president of its policy think tank, Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies (ADRi). Prof. Manhit is a former Chair and retired associate professor of Political Science of De La Salle University. He has authored numerous papers on governance, political, and electoral reforms.