Before tackling the headline topic applauding President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to chart an independent foreign policy, two requisite statements:
First, our profound and heartfelt sympathies to his family on the loss of his two unborn grandchildren among triplets carried by his daughter, Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte Carpio. Receiving this tragic news amid the intense flurry of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, exacerbated the burden on the septuagenarian grandfather.
Second, this writer must clarify that this article does not defend or justify Duterte’s bloody war on narcotics, his profanity-laced speech, or his combative stance toward some foreign leaders. There are significant flaws in all three hallmarks of his administration, as expounded in past columns.
The anti-narcotics campaign demands greater safeguards against abuse, especially the vetting by police superiors of arrest targets and protocols. Loose lips by Duterte and Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. have unnecessarily ruffled relations and stirred international animosity in unhelpful ways.
However, the shift away from dependence on and subservience to America, especially in the past regime, and toward greater solidarity and cooperation with Asian nations — bravo to that.
The Duterte administration’s new tack was so clearly and dramatically conveyed by his strong statements even before the summit, and during the Asean-US meeting in response to President Barack Obama’s criticism of the many killings in the two-month-old anti-drug campaign. Plainly, the years of Manila as Washington’s voice in Asean are over.
The growing superpower face-off
The foreign policy shift comes in the nick of time. Global events are pitting America and its Western allies against Russia and China. If the Philippines is closely allied with the US, it risks being dragged into the intensifying big-power rivalry, with potentially grave dangers for national interests and the Filipino people.
That superpower test of wills is heating up fast. Moscow and Washington face off in Europe and the Middle East, with flashpoints in former Soviet republics, Syria, and the Black Sea. And in East Asia, “China and the United States are at loggerheads over several regional disputes that could lead to military confrontation or even violence between them.”
That quoted warning came from the US Army-funded think-tank RAND Corporation in its recent report, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” (see “The war report President Duterte must read” < http://www.manilatimes.net/the-war-report-president-duterte-must-read/280564/ >).
Plus: Yesterday, China and Russia began eight days of naval drills in the South China Sea — the largest such exercise by their navies.
Plainly, if there is war in Asia involving America, even if we don’t have any major national interest in the conflict, the massive US forces rotating in the archipelago and the five bases made available to them under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), would be magnets for attack.
As the RAND report put it, “the Chinese regard aircraft carriers and regional air bases as prime targets.”
Charting an independent foreign policy
What should be the overarching parameters of an independent Philippine foreign policy? Three tenets to consider:
First, the primacy of national interest and security amid shifting global realities.
Second, the welfare and security of Filipinos overseas, now equivalent to one-tenth of the Philippine population.
Third, solidarity with developing nations, especially fellow Asean members, in advancing a global agenda addressing widespread poverty and growing security, health, crime and environmental threats.
This column is, of course, too short to fully flesh out all major foreign policy issues in light of President Duterte’s new thrust. But we can touch on one paramount concern: our relations with Asia’s leading powers, America, China and Japan.
From his predecessor’s policy of maintaining good ties with all three, then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd swung toward Washington and Tokyo and against Beijing. He even likened China to Nazi Germany — surely far more offensive diplomatically than even Duterte’s “colorful” remarks on the US and the UN leaders.
Duterte is wise to rebuild ties with China and avoid confrontations that could spark war. His pursuit of bilateral talks offers a peaceful way forward on territorial and maritime issues, rather than haranguing Beijing over the Permanent Court of Arbitration declaration that its “nine-dash line” claim over most of the South China Sea violates the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
But the big test of foreign policy independence is EDCA: Will Duterte implement the pact and allow the escalation of US forces in the country, with access to five Philippine bases, including airfields shared with city airports in Cebu, Cagayan de Oro and Puerto Princesa?
If EDCA remains in full force, then China will necessarily treat the Philippines as a strategic threat, with potentially hostile nuclear-capable forces on our territory. Those American warships, submarines and aircraft can hit most of China with missiles able to carry atomic warheads. They also threaten vital shipping lanes in the South China Sea, through which four-fifths of Chinese oil imports pass, among other strategic cargo.
President Duterte would have to assess if having American forces in the country, with the attendant risk of Chinese animosity and attack, truly serves national interests and security. After all, Washington has made it clear in word and practice that it would not back us in our territorial disputes, unlike its express policy of defending Tokyo’s control over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands also claimed by Beijing.
Moreover, the threat to vital sea lanes from American forces in the archipelago is one big reason for the People’s Liberation Army’s buildup in the South China Sea. After all, the RAND report cites as a key US war strategy “cutting off Chinese access to seaborne supplies of oil and liquefied natural gas.” No wonder the PLA feels it needs to counter the Seventh Fleet’s deployment in the Philippines.
To be sure, major changes in the US alliance should not be done without protocols negotiated with China to avoid past encroachments and conflict. But the key difference has been made by Duterte: From now on, the Philippines will deal with the world based on its national interests, not the dictates of foreign powers.