By Alyssa Nicole O. Tan, Reporter
and Jaspearl Emerald G. Tan

PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES lack a clear foreign policy direction and are unlikely to advance Philippine interests in case they get elected, political analysts said at the weekend.

“Any self-respecting presidential candidate must by now be able to articulate the fundamentals of their foreign policy vision,” Jaime B. Naval, a political science professor from the University of the Philippines (UP), said at the weekend. “Foreign policy is naturally anchored on domestic considerations.”

The president must understand and connect regional and extra-regional developments to advance the interests of the country, Mr. Naval said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “We need to have more creative, out-of-the-box solutions or actions.”

The more prominent presidential candidates only have general statements on specifics issues, Herman Joseph S. Kraft, who heads the UP Department of Political Science, said in a Viber message.

Their views are limited to seeking good relations with China and defending the country’s territorial integrity, “but nothing that states broad strategic ideas of what the country’s foreign policy is seeking as an outcome, and how this outcome is to be achieved.”

“There has to be more than just the rivalry between the US and China, the West Philippine Sea, or overseas Filipino workers in our foreign policy,” he added.

Mr. Kraft said the next Philippine president would probably be “winging it” at least in the first few months amid a coronavirus pandemic.

The government  would be “playing catch-up in an increasingly fluid situation it has very little control over.” It is likely that this would not change in the short term, he added.

Four of the top five presidential contenders have the same foreign policy platforms, Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University, said via Zoom.

These candidates — Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” G. Robredo, Senator and boxing champion Emmanuel “Manny” D. Pacquiao, Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” M. Domagoso and Senator Panfilo “Ping” M. Lacson, Sr. — might challenge China but not completely, he said.

When it comes to the sea dispute, they  see China as a competitor and never a best friend, he pointed out.

In contrast, former Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” R. Marcos, Jr. seems to have a defeatist attitude toward China, Mr. de Castro said.

Mr. Kraft said the son of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos seemed dead set on following President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s line on China. He has repeatedly said the Philippines’ arbitral win against China could not be enforced and a bilateral deal with Beijing was the practical option.

Mr. Marcos had parroted Mr. Duterte’s position in the past that the country could not afford to go to war with China.

Mr. Duterte only started speaking about protecting Philippine sovereignty last year, close to the end of his six-year term.

For most of his term, the tough-talking leader had allowed Chinese fishermen to illegally fish in the South China Sea and followed through with a so-called appeasement policy, according to Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

“Since Marcos has insisted that his administration would take a policy direction that seems to adhere closely to the line taken by President Duterte, it would be logical to assume that China would favor his election,” Mr. Kraft said.

China might delay its militarization of the South China Sea so it does not put Mr. Marcos, who has “said nice things about them,” in an awkward position.”

Mr. De Castro said China would support a candidate who is for rather than against them, though it might have reservations about Mr. Marcos given his poor track record as a legislator.

At a webinar at the weekend, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said “China never interferes in the politics of other countries.”

“We believe that Filipinos have the wisdom to choose their own leader,” he said. “As far as China-Philippine relations, that is under the guidance of our top leaders.”

“Our relations have picked up a new momentum and we will continue to work with the leader elected by the Philippines to continue this good momentum of our bilateral relations and bring benefits to both our peoples,” he added.

Mr. Naval noted that unlike most candidates, Ms. Robredo and Mr. Lacson have a deeper understanding of foreign policy. “Thus far, the others have a superficial knowledge of the key foreign policy concerns the country must address.”

Ms. Robredo earlier said she would pursue deals with China only if it recognizes the 2016 ruling by a United Nations-backed tribunal that invalidated its claim to more than 80% of the sea.

Mr. Lacson has cited the need for a “balance of power in the West Philippine Sea,” referring to areas of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

He also said he would review the country’s Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States and boost ties with foreign military powers.

Both candidates have said the Philippines could not stay neutral in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Mr. De Castro said the next president should pursue trade and investment deals with China and should draw the line as far as the sea dispute is concerned.

“Whoever gets elected as president must not only display and communicate familiarity with the strategic and contemporary international concerns relevant to the Philippines,” Mr. Naval said.

“They must know and be prepared to deal with the implications of international developments, and how these can be exploited to advance our interests,” he added.

Meanwhile, senatorial candidates who joined a debate on national TV don’t seem to have a good grasp of international relations, Dennis C. Coronacion, a political science professor from the University of Santo Tomas, said in a Viber message.

“Not all of them have a good grasp of international relations and not all of them know the nuances of the regional security in East Asia,” he said.

The candidates were asked whether they agree with former Japanese  Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal for the US to deploy nuclear warheads in Japan.

All the candidates correctly answered that Philippine national interest should come first, but no one put the issue in context.

“This is clearly meant to boost Japan’s defense in the light of the actions of China and North Korea to proceed with nuclear  defense programs,” he said. “Abe’s proposal became controversial since Japan has a long-standing policy against possessing and allowing nuclear weapons in their territory.”

“The idea of the US deploying nuclear weapons in Japan and this being raised is probably a trial balloon,” Mr. Kraft said in a separate Viber message. “It is intended to draw comments from the Japanese people (which the Japanese government is very interested in), and from the rest of the region (Chinese sentiments probably already being considered with a grain of salt).”

“Of course, sentiments raised by our candidates offer ideas that make it seem like this is about the Philippines and that we can do something to affect this decision,” Mr. Kraft said.

Hansley A. Juliano, a former political science professor studying at Nagoya University’s Graduate School of International Development in Japan said senatorial candidates who said the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty, 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement  and 1999 visiting forces agreement with the US are no longer valid were wrong because the Supreme Court has upheld their legality.

“Any statement that says these are not valid is technically not speaking in accordance with the law,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “The Supreme Court has acknowledged the constitutionality of all of them.”