A refreshed foreign outlook for the Philippines

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I FLEW to California to further my studies in the early 1990s. I chose a window seat on the plane, as I wanted to be able to rest without being unduly disturbed during the flight. That was not the first time I went to the United States, but when the plane landed at San Francisco International Airport and taxied to its docking gate, I looked out the window and what I saw almost made me think that I landed in Manila. For most of the ground crew, from luggage handlers to fuel refillers and technicians, all donned with noise-reducing headsets, looked distinctively like Filipinos. And, indeed, they were mostly Filipinos.

As I then settled down in California, I met many Filipino classmates and made many Filipino friends from all walks of life. They told me many wonderful tales about the Philippines and Filipinos around the world, and I have been impressed with the various colorful elements that formed the Philippine narrative. For example, I am recently pleased to learn that the Chief Justice of California is of Filipino descent and went to the same law school as I did.

The purpose for briefly recounting above my main encounters with Filipinos outside the Philippines is to continue with my wish list for the new presidential administration. Boosting the Philippine economy by opening up more sectors for foreign participation as well as reducing the Byzantine web of regulations is, of course, the absolute priority. Tackling safety and security concerns both domestically and in surrounding areas, most notably the Sulu Sea, will also create an environment more conducive for investment and tourism. With these fundamental issues to be settled to a large extent, a safe and vibrant Philippines could play an even more active and constructive role on the world stage.

There is no denying that in foreign affairs the Philippines is unenviably situated between an America bent on “pivoting” to Asia on the one hand—albeit after having dithered for too long away from this part of the world and largely focused on the Middle East, and not just economically—and, indeed a comprehensively rising China wishing to rejuvenate its former glories on the other hand. As a former US colony, the Philippines has undergone a complicated relationship with the US in at least the last half century. The then-hosting but subsequent removal of US military bases in the Philippines and the present intensification of military cooperation between the two countries testify amply to the uniquely rocky road.


The Sino-Filipino relations in recent times have also seen bumpy ride, although the Philippines was one of the first Southeast Asian countries to reach out to a then-isolated China in the early 1970s. The sovereignty disputes over the maritime features and territories spanning the vast sea, which separates the two countries, are, of course, chiefly responsible for the currently rather soured bilateral relation. The new administration was wise in not gloating over the opinion of The Hague arbitration case, for geopolitical reality dictates that it would not change the entrenched status quo in the high seas. No party is likely to, thus, advance or retreat short of armed confrontation, which would inevitably heighten regional tension to the detriment of all.

I am, of course, not in a position to advise the Philippines as to take side with either of these two superpowers. But I would urge Manila to conduct foreign affairs in manners that would best serve the Philippines and, by extension, regional interest. Sometimes this may mean not taking side with either of the superpowers, as with matters of absolute sovereignty, or taking side with both the superpowers, as in participating in free trade and economic cooperation initiatives championed by either of the or both superpowers.

The Philippines should also participate more closely in Asean affairs, especially those that are economic in nature. With its vast experience trading and engaging in service provision with many advanced countries, the Philippines should take a more frontal role in helping shape the free-trade agenda of the region. Asean has evolved from a primarily security-oriented association of nations into one that is more economically driven. And the Philippines should grasp this opportunity in conjunction with fellow Asean countries in ensuring the Asean Economic Community’s eventual success, which could hopefully transform the economic landscape of most Southeast Asian nations for the better.

And the huge Filipino diaspora working and living in the various corners of the world are also citizen-ambassadors for the Philippines. Even in the Middle East and in my own country, Malaysia, Filipinos are heavily engaged in the hospitality and service industries. In some other countries like the US, many of them are, of course, naturalized and are even subsequent generations of immigrants. But I know many of them still retain fond feelings for their original or ancestral homeland. They could be the volunteer-bridges for the Philippines in bettering international ties.

Neighboring countries such as Malaysia would dearly like to see the Philippines succeed in its nation-building process, and we are more than willing to be of help in the process, for the common good of all in the region.

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