In terms of inter-operability, there is no country other than the US that is a better fit for establishing effective credible defense and materiel capability on the part of the armed forces. The military alliance between the US and this country was built over many years, yet President Rodrigo Duterte announced that this week’s military exercises between US and Philippine forces would “be the last” and that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will be “reviewed.” He now plans to open new alliances with Russia and China. Why these countries?
For developing countries with weak defense capability, armed forces modernization will depend in no small part on the concept of inter-operability between the more advanced, exporting military power and the receiving state. There is a world of difference between piloting a Russian Su-35 fighter and an F-16 Fighting Falcon or their variants, between inheriting Soviet-era remnants of the Black Sea Fleet and commanding multi-role US Coast Guard Cutters. The former pair will require paradigm shifts in managing their respective materiel, their array of compatible military doctrine and strategy, and not to mention, new supply chains. US assets, on the other hand, have shown to be better transferable. In a country with a lower baseline of defense, it would be foolish to change the rules of the game midway. Exploring opportunities for defense reform is always welcome, but it is quite another thing to take clean breaks from prior economies of scale based on “personal reasons” or “principles” of a sitting president.
What is more, there are underlying diplomatic aspects in any defense relationship. What is increasingly clear is that President Duterte is realigning geopolitical relationships based on unstated “personal” convictions. He does this at the cost of expending an unprecedented largesse of moral, legal, and political capital brought about by the July 12, 2016 Arbitral Award that ruled against China’s “9-dash line” claim and in favor of the Philippine position. In short, Duterte is singlehandedly redefining the balance of powers in Asia, and small-fry executive agreements like EDCA should be no impediment to that rebalancing act.
Never mind countries like Belgium canceling their royal visits and trade missions because of allusions to the Holocaust. Nor should it matter much that S&P is hesitating to make positive forecasts, citing the President’s unpredictable and unclear policy signals. The stakes are actually much higher. Contrary to what pundits say, Duterte is not trying to stay ahead of a geopolitical rebalancing curve—he is charting the curve itself. The price to this political undertaking cannot be understated, especially if made by one so untrained in statesmanship and diplomacy. Nor can costs be captured in terms of lost opportunity in military assistance or in terms of international reputational damage alone, but in long-term societal costs that come with the normalization of crisis as ordinary events.
Under this “our-brand-is-crisis” strategy, the sands of the political landscape are made to keep shifting. The powers of the State apparatus are made to be trained at moving, unstable targets. And for the President to be the first to call it a crisis, he is instantly seen to be part of the solution itself. This is why a crisis branding strategy is traditionally effective in keeping leaders in power. Crisis branding is supply-driven rhetoric. President Marcos himself looked to this strategy to justify martial law. Once political capital from a crisis is on the verge of being fully expended, the proponent would move on to define the next one – for instance, from illegal drugs to illegal gambling – and is constrained only by political imagination. What will be our next crisis tomorrow?
While investors, though concerned, opt to look beyond the “noise” and for the Peso to eventually “correct” itself, crisis branding does not allow the dust to settle. Noise is essential and is used for the purpose of deflecting attention to an imagined hot button issue while the proponent quietly works upon another—such as the peace process. Retaining political support by branding normal issues as crisis issues is complemented by appeasement, or a calculated retraction of utterances (such as an apology) seen in hindsight to have elicited too hostile a response, followed by a call for a vote of confidence (“you can oust me if I abuse power”). Some would call this plain demagoguery but it is more systematic than that. Is a continuous state of disruption desirable for business and a condition for inclusive growth?
Crisis branding can be an effective political campaign strategy because it draws power from frightening people, but it has no place in day-to-day governance. Normalizing fright and violence is not a governance model and is a huge step in the wrong direction. What the Philippines needs today is to maintain respect, implement policies that ooze with common sense, and take a long-term orientation in regional stability and cooperation.
Edsel Tupaz is a public interest attorney and legal academic. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School.