Politics is swayed by the tempo and spirit of the times. Administrations in power, no matter how visionary, would always be compelled to act on the demands of the present. The Duterte administration, at the beginning of its term, presented itself as a cut different from past governments. The rhetoric of pursuing an “independent foreign policy” caught the attention of many, critics and supporters alike. Midway in its term, the “independence” of the country’s foreign policy remains contested.
The main goal of a country’s foreign policy is to advance the interests of the country and its people while maintaining friendly relations with other nations. These are two separate agendas, but the bottom line is always the pursuit of national interest. That’s why the adage in international politics is that states have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. The conundrum, however, in diplomatic relations is that while the policy makers need their own people to support the policy position they take vis-à-vis other nations, the reality is that political leaders are also not at liberty to divulge all available information to the public, especially if it involves national security concerns. This, seemingly, is the current predicament of the Duterte administration.
In light of the latest maritime incident involving the ramming of the boat of Filipino fisherfolk by a Chinese vessel, the administration is being pressured by its domestic constituents to act and show proof that it truly is advancing the interests of the Filipino people. The problematic situation, however, is that if the Philippine government takes a hard line position against China, it may fall into the “trap” that China seemingly lays with this incident. It should be noted that in 2012, when the Philippine government took a hard line position against the Chinese poachers in Panatag (Scarborough) shoal, China used its military and economic power and swarmed the shoal. To this day, the Chinese militia have not vacated Panatag shoal and has in fact de facto control over the area. The government, thus, may be concerned that taking a hard line approach might result in a repeat of that incident and the Philippines may lose control over Reed bank. Hence the soft approach. The downside of taking such a position, however, is that the government is seemingly kowtowing to the interests and gameplay of China.
Some critics claim that the case filed by the Aquino administration in 2012 was the beginning of the problem. They assert that the case was misguided since it made China even more aggressive in claiming the entire South China Sea. The reality, however, is that China had been aggressive even before the 2012 incident; its encroachment on the islands in the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) began in 1994 with the occupation of Mischief (Panganiban) Reef. China had deliberately trained its eyes on the Spratley’s group of islands as early as the 1990s. The late Senator Leticia Shahani, in one forum, declared that China in the 1990s required most of its graduate students to focus their research on the South China Sea. That was how strategic China’s thinking was. So the naming and blaming game by the critics and supporters of the administration vis-à-vis the South China Sea (particularly the West Philippine Sea) has nowhere to go. While both claim that they have the best interests of the people at hand, the reality is, as one poster intelligently declared, that “one point of view does not show the whole picture.”
What about the United States? The Philippines has a Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States which was signed in 1951. In 1999, the Philippines signed the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and in 2014 the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The “independent foreign policy” of the Duterte administration, in as far as security matters are concerned, was initially interpreted as moving away from the country’s over-reliance on the United States. But in a global competition that is dominated by the polar forces of the US and the People’s Republic of China, moving away from the US will mean gravitating towards China. Given that China and the Philippines are embroiled in a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, this obviously is not an easy situation. Besides, the Philippine military’s umbilical cord is attached to the USA due to the MDT. Moving away from the US will not happen overnight.
Moving forward, this author believes that the government must devise a truly independent and dignified foreign policy position, one that clearly shows the government’s commitment to advance the interests of its people while remaining cordial with its neighbors. It cannot always brandish the “we cannot go to war against China” card and the “we are weak” card every time there is a problem in our South China Sea territory.
This is necessary in light of the continued assertion of China over the entire South China Sea, denying freedom of navigation in the body of water. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) was forged by states precisely to prevent any single state from controlling important sea lanes and to protect the interests of archipelagic nations like the Philippines.
As some military strategist would say, the game of war begins in the minds of men and women. If the beginning position of players, even before the “game” is played, is that “we are weak” and “we will lose,” then the game need not be played at all since the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The policy makers and political leaders must formulate a truly independent foreign policy, one that upholds the proud legacy of freedom and independence of the Filipino people, and one that promotes its commitment to the community of nations under a rule of law. Nothing less is acceptable.
Jennifer Santiago Oreta is a faculty member of the Department of Political Science, and the Director of the Ateneo Initiative for Southeast Asian Studies of the Ateneo de Manila University.