An unused resource
FOREIGN policy is a major instrument of a nation’s progress, but one of the least appreciated by post-war Filipino presidents. In the last 50 years, President Ferdinand Marcos appears to be the only one who tried to utilize fully the country’s foreign relations to serve clearly defined national interests.
This is something the Duterte government can try to replicate.
Under Marcos, we normalized relations with our former wartime aggressor, Japan.
We opened diplomatic relations with China, the Soviet Union and the rest of the communist world.
We assumed a vital role in Southeast Asia, the Asia Pacific and the entire tierre monde.
We cemented the legal basis of our territorial claim to “Kalayaan” (the Spratlys) and to (North Borneo) Sabah.
We provided an expiration date for the presence of United States military bases in the Philippines.
We convinced interested foreign governments to abandon their active logistical support for the Communist Party of the Philippines and the Moro insurgency in southern Philippines, and—amidst threats of a global oil embargo—to help ensure the stability of supply of oil and oil products to the Philippines.
We also gained official assurances from foreign governments that they would protect the rights and well-being of Filipino workers, who had just begun to enter the global jobs market.
The enumeration is merely illustrative. But these are the points that stand out.
Abandoning the gains
Succeeding presidents, from Corazon Aquino to her celebrated dum-dum of a son, B.S. Aquino 3rd, systematically threw away those gains instead of building upon them.
Thus we lost our standing as a leader of nations even within the limited expanse of Southeast Asia.
Where Marcos once commanded the respect of leaders like Suharto, Razak, Lee Kuan Yew, Bhumibol Adulyadeh, Norodom Sihanouk, Pham Van Dong, Park Chung Hee, Chou Enlai, Japanese prime ministers Sato to Nakasone, B.S. Aquino the Last has become the butt of jokes among his Association of Southeast Asian Nations colleagues.
We failed to ride the wave of economic progress that has lifted hundreds of millions of boats in China, India, Korea and the rest of Southeast Asia.
We lost the right to pursue with honor and dignity our territorial claim to Sabah. When a handful of supporters of the Sultan of Sulu, the original proprietor of Sabah, appeared in Lahad Datu to remind the Malaysian authorities of the Sultan’s and the Philippine government’s claim, they were hunted down by Malaysian troops, with Aquino cheering from the sidelines.
We lost the Scarborough Shoal, and the right of our fishermen to fish in peaceful waters, to China.
And we lost our right as an independent and sovereign nation to decide what is in our best national interest, independent of what is good or bad for China, Japan, Europe or America.
It has been a humiliating experience for Filipinos. The Duterte government has every right and reason to break away from it. It must do so at all cost. It must not waste the opportunity granted it by the electorate. All it needs is a clear head and a strong resolve to do what is right, necessary, and within its legitimate ability and power to do.
First of all, it must give foreign policy the respect and value it deserves.
In a presidential government, the Department or Ministry of Foreign Affairs is the premier Cabinet post. This is because no nation-state can claim legitimacy unless it has gained the recognition of other governments. And it is the Foreign Secretary that often acts in the name of the President in dealing with those governments. This gives him primacy over the other Cabinet Secretaries. In Marcos’s time, Carlos P. Romulo’s position was unquestioned.
But from Corazon Aquino onward, the position has been downgraded, in favor of the “Executive Secretary,” who has Cabinet rank but does not hold a Cabinet portfolio. The Executive Secretary is a staff officer in the Office of the President, and not one of the Department Heads mentioned in the Constitution. He provides very important staff support to the President, but does not perform a line function. He cannot therefore outrank anyone with a Cabinet portfolio, least of all the Foreign Secretary who, among the Cabinet members, is the “primus inter pares.”
We shall return to this.
What kind of policy?
Under Section 7 Article II of the 1987 Constitution, “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and the right to self-determination.”
The spirit and letter of the law is clear: the State shall pursue a foreign policy that is free from outside control, not subject to anybody’s authority other than that of the State itself. The average reader is familiar with the terms “national sovereignty,” “territorial integrity,” and “national interest” as used in this sentence, except perhaps “self-determination.” This simply means “a nation’s right to freely choose its sovereignty and international political status without any interference from any source.”
In principle, a democratic and republican state has no sovereign but its own people, and all government authority emanates from them. Its foreign policy, which is an expression of its sovereignty, and also an extension of its domestic policy, can only be “independent.” In reality the big and rich countries can have an “independent” foreign policy; small, poor countries normally can’t and don’t.
Cold War proxies
This was most evident during the Cold War, when the smaller countries behaved like a tail in the kite of Moscow and Washington.
In 1960, at the 902nd plenary session of the UN General Assembly, Philippine Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong carried his zeal for the US position a little too far by attacking the Soviet Union without provocation, prompting Premier Nikita Khrushchev to bang his shoe on his desk. On another occasion, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was reported to have put down Gen. Carlos P. Romulo for his excessive pro-Americanism. So did the nationalist Sen. Claro M. Recto.
In the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo, as in the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Philippine delegates were so determined to echo the US position, even when it went against their own culture.
The playbook has not completely changed.
At the beginning of the Aquino administration, Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin were reported to have assured the Pentagon that the Philippines would act as the “frontline state” in containing China’s rise as a world power.
Given the fact that the South China Sea conflict between China and the Philippines and other Southeast Asian neighbors now seems to define the principal foreign policy issue for the region, what can the Duterte government do to come up with an “independent” policy response?
Given the historical interests of the US, Japan, and the European powers in the region, is an “independent” policy response from the Philippine government at all possible?
This would, at the very least, require a versatile balancing act on the part of Mr. Duterte and his new Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Diplomacy has to work at all cost.
It is to Mr. Duterte’s credit that despite his “take-no-prisoners” approach to every other issue that involves rights and duties, he appears willing to dialog with Beijing even as he awaits the result of the arbitration process at the United Nations tribunal at The Hague.
Confrontation cannot be a solution. The region must move on, and one way for it to do so would be for the parties to agree that instead of trying to prove one’s claim against the other, both could agree that the disputed area is part of the common heritage of mankind. They could then move for its demilitarization as a zone of peace, commerce and freedom of navigation. And the whole community of nations could join them.
This would not only decouple the settlement of the Philippines-China maritime conflict from the resolution of the sphere of influence conflict between China and the US. It would also render moot and academic the latter conflict, which is the real conflict that threatens a regional or even global war. A recent study released by the Washington-based bipartisan Center for a New American Security (CNAS) claims that new weapons, technology and tactics developed by Russia, China and Iran could end US global sea dominance soon, even though the US has 10 aircraft carriers, equivalent to what all the other countries can field combined.
They are reported to have developed advanced air-defense systems, anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, submarines and aircraft carriers, which could prevent US carriers and their planes from getting close to their targets without incurring serious damage or being destroyed. Russian-Chinese cooperation has put in China’s hands one of the largest forces of advanced long-range surface-to-air systems in the world, the study said, quoting the Pentagon.
If the entire waterway were demilitarized, the present global arms race would stop, and it would not matter much who was ahead of whom at the last count. War avoidance measures would certainly become more popular and profitable than war. Mr. Duterte’s Leftist partners would not need to demand the revocation of EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US); it would naturally lose its reason for being.
Neutrality as option
In the exercise of the right of “self-determination,” Mr. Duterte could then proclaim armed neutrality as the sovereign policy of his government, like Switzerland. This would release the Philippines from any existing military entanglements and alliances, and hasten demilitarization of our disputed waterways.
The country could adopt a truly independent foreign policy in the end.
But in order to become a truly effective instrument of progress, Philippine foreign policy must redefine its purposes and objectives and character. As a neutral country, we will have no reason to get involved in many political issues; our diplomats, therefore, could devote their time, energy and resources to the creation of greater wealth for the nation through trade, technology transfer, information sharing and investments, and the protection, care and mobilization of Filipinos abroad.
Philippine diplomacy should enable the government and, ultimately, the disparate public to have a more informed common understanding of how the global economy is working, particularly in places where there are so many Filipinos. This could be far more important than some sensational political breaking news.
This will require a restructuring of the Department of Foreign Affairs to include “international trade” as one of its primary and organic functions, leaving the Department of Trade and Industry to concentrate on domestic trade, and a further strengthening of its career force by weeding out the deadwood and the riffraff, and paying its diplomats as well as their foreign counterparts. Under the Foreign Service Act of the Philippines, career diplomats are compulsorily and automatically retired upon reaching the age of 65, while no non-career diplomat may be appointed to any position who is 70 years old or above.
This law has been wantonly by Malacañang. Since there are career ambassadors who remain intellectually agile after 65, and non-career senior individuals whose experience and wisdom may be hard to replace, the law should be amended to allow the President to call on their services, as an exception to the rule. We should also learn how other governments avoid posting a resident ambassador where they cannot afford one.