AS we await the outcome of the Philippines’ case before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS), we should think about our long-term foreign policy vision. What do we hope to achieve through our foreign policy, in its broadest, boldest aims? What does the Philippines stand for internationally and in the region, and how do we hope to embody those values and achieve those ends? It is exigent that we think now about these things, because we are approaching a presidential election and because the decision by the ITLOS will not resolve all the disputes in the West Philippine Sea—this is a multifaceted, overlapping conflict that will be with us for many decades. So we must think longer and larger, even as we support our case. Moreover, even as we position ourselves to secure maximal gains in the West Philippine Sea, we should not get mired in these conflicts to the detriment of our larger vision as to what our foreign policy hopes to build.
When dealing with China, and with the international political powers more generally, scholars observe among Filipinos the persistence of an outmoded Cold War mindset that no longer reflects reality. This has prevented the development of an independent, pragmatic, and flexible Philippine foreign policy. What one would hope to achieve under the administration of the next President of the Philippines are more effective, sophisticated, and pragmatic statecraft and an inspiring, ambitious long-term vision that transcends a mere six-year term and advances the future that our nation desires for the Filipino people. If this is achieved, rather than appearing as an inconsistent and self-interested partner to ASEAN, there is an opportunity for the Philippines to emerge as an independent, visionary partner in foreign affairs and to be part of the ongoing work to establish and deepen Southeast Asia as a region.
Given the lack of credibility to our foreign policy, which drastically switches with each presidential administration and which is viewed by some ASEAN members as being merely a proxy for the US and Japan’s wishes/interference in the region, we must aid ASEAN efforts to resolve the dispute, maintain constant communication with our partners, and give credibility to our desire to uphold ASEAN centrality. We must do this in tandem with a longer, larger foreign policy vision centered on regional collaboration and economic cooperation to evidence that this is a mature foreign policy that will last across presidencies, taking the middle ground after having experienced the swings of both extremes of Chinese and American partisanship under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno S. Aquino 3rd, respectively. Only this restoration of our foreign policy credibility will incentivize ASEAN to partner with us.
We should seek to champion a new, comprehensive Pax Asia-Pacifica, which centers on economic cooperation, multilaterality, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) centrality, under which joint development of the resources of the Spratly Islands would be subsumed. The appeal should rest on former President Fidel Ramos’s 2011 suggestion of a transition from the region’s Pax Americana to a comprehensive Pax Asia-Pacifica “based on mutual benefits rather than on the balance of power.” This framework would support and enhance ongoing efforts within the region, enshrining ‘ASEAN centrality’ as a stabilizing pillar of the Pax Asia-Pacifica, while envisioning and supporting a multipolar world of several great powers, including Japan, India, and Russia, as well as ASEAN—not the hegemony of either the US or China as a super power.
This is the best opportunity for long-term peace, development, and political independence in the region. This framework would also allow the Philippines to directly address its credibility problem within ASEAN, presenting the Pax Asia-Pacifica and multilateral ASEAN-based commitment to joint development of resources as the rational, sustainable, mutually beneficial solution for all parties. We should link this new regionalist effort to our recent and ongoing moves toward effecting ASEAN economic integration, as evidence of our acting in good faith for the larger region, and not merely for our national benefit. While the proximate goal would be peaceful joint development of the Spratlys with joint benefactors, the long-term goal is something much greater: economic cooperation and humanitarian collaboration in a stronger, safer, more dynamic, and more harmonious Asia Pacific region.
The Philippines can boast a long history of regionalism; in this we have often been a historical leader. The first colonized peoples to explore Pan-Asianism in Southeast Asia were the Filipinos and the Vietnamese, against the Spanish, Americans, and French colonial powers from as early as the 1890s; and the Philippines was one of the three founding nations of Maphilindo in 1963, supporting the confederation of the Malay peoples in the region.
The Philippine Revolution was the first modern anti-colonial national revolution in Southeast Asia and the First Philippine Republic was the first modern republic in Southeast Asia. The Philippines has long held the capacity for vision, modernity, and leadership in the region, and it is time we again turn home to the region, in pursuit of our national interests and in support of the larger community with whom our future will undoubtedly lie.
Nicole Del Rosario CuUnjieng is a PhD Candidate in Southeast Asian and International History at Yale University.