THE seismic shift in the Philippine foreign policy has got many confused, with some senior policymakers and diplomats left with no choice but to adopt a wait-and-see attitude.
Firebrand Rodrigo Duterte, the new President who rose to power in May on the back of bombastic campaign promises of transformative change, has been undoing his predecessor’s gains in terms of the alliance with the US and victory in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Two senior diplomats, who spoke in condition of anonymity, expressed disappointments over Duterte’s hostility toward the country’s traditional ally and softness on Beijing’s provocative moves in the contested waters, worsened by the “undiplomatic” approach of his appointee at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Secretary Perfecto Yasay, Jr.
“What kind of President is that?” one diplomat told The Manila Times. “He is full of nonsense.”
Another added, “He doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
Professor Jean Encinas-Franco, of University of the Philippines’ Political Science Dept., noticed that foreign policy is the waterloo of the former crime-crushing mayor, adding that he would have to rely on his advisers in making decisions.
Duterte made it clear that he wants the country to be less dependent on the Western superpower while being friendlier to the Asian giant, which illegally claimed, occupied, and exploited the Philippine resources in the West Philippine Sea as per the July 12 ruling of a UN arbitral tribunal.
The decision stated that China’s excessive claims over almost the whole of the South China Sea through the demarcation nine-dash line did not have any legal basis—a major political win that the President is willing to set aside in a bid to establish better political and economic ties with Beijing.
At a Christmas reception in Manila, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua promised an improvement in trade and tourism between the erstwhile foes in the year ahead.
“There will be more exports of tropical fruits from the Philippines to China; there’ll be more groundbreaking ceremonies for infrastructure projects. Maybe sooner or later you will see railways built by the Chinese and the traffic jam is going to be eased,” Zhao said. “And last but not the least, there will be more Chinese tourists coming to the Philippines.”
Philippine Ambassador-designate to China Chito Sta. Romana said the foreign policy shift will bring about the change in perception: the Philippines will no longer be viewed as a “geopolitical pawn” and a “Trojan horse” of the US’ “containment” policy, but as a “friendly neighbor” with an independent foreign policy.
“Before, we were aligned closely to one side—the US,” he stressed. “What we’re doing is decrease of separation of foreign policy from the US and the assertion of an independent foreign policy.”
Professor Ronald Simbulan, of the UP Development Studies and Public Management, saw that Duterte is making a perfect approach, noting that the previous administration failed to pursue an independent foreign policy as mandated by the Philippine Constitution.
He said the current government is “restructuring” the policy, “so that we can deal with the US with more mutual and reciprocal level.”
“Because in the past, the treaties and agreements were one-sided, that’s why our image to other countries was a surrogate or satellite of the United States,” he added.
The academician posited that it is more practical to put the arbitral award on the backburner, to first establish a better relationship and cool down the tension as the Philippines is not capable of compelling China to abide by the ruling.
Simbulan downplayed the pulling out of US aids. “[T]hat was only part of their public relations and did not make any significant development” because the Philippines can benefit more from China in the near future.
“The prediction is that by 2020, China would have surpassed the US as the global economic power,” he explained. “So I think we can benefit from that, especially with our proximity to China, for our economy in terms of tourism, trade and aid.”
But Professor Richard Javad Heydarian, of De La Salle University’s Political Science Department, warned that picking a fight with the US while pulling China closer to the Philippines will not help resolve the bitter row.
Note that it was the US that cajoled for the Philippines on its sweeping victory in the arbitration court. Then-US President Barack Obama even raised the importance of compliance with international law in a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“If there is a tension between the Philippines and the US, that will definitely not help the Philippines negotiate its position when it deals with China,” Heydarian said. “And if anything, it will encourage China to contribute tension, [and]it would become easier for China to dominate areas claimed by the Philippines.”
He added, “Let’s not be naive about China’s intention … to dominate the South China Sea. They believe it’s their natural true soil. So the last thing that you want is to eliminate your bargaining position or to weaken your bargaining position with your most important defender or ally.”
True enough. China was seen unstopping its militarization in the South China Sea with continuous installation of weapons, including anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it has built.
Unlike in the previous administration where the foreign department immediately protested China’s every provocative action, Yasay only stated that, “There is nothing that we can do about that now.”
The country’s top diplomat said Manila would eventually discuss the sensitive issues with Beijing when both parties have already built strong trust and confidence level.
Professor Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the credibility of the Philippines will suffer from the ruling administration’s inconsistent foreign policy when Manila becomes ready to assert its claims.
He lamented, “They are saying that let history be the judge? Oh, let history record that this is the time that we gave up.”