Perhaps the most significant statement that President Rodrigo Duterte has made during his state visit to China is his declaration that there will be no joint exploration between Manila and Beijing in the disputed South China Sea (West Philippine Sea).
In announcing this at a news conference in Beijing, the President gave his reason, or reasons, for ruling out discussions of energy exploration during his scheduled bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
President Duterte said:
“I do not think that would be right,” adding that a proposal for joint exploration should have the consent of the Philippine Congress and the people.
“If you plan to give up something, if you plan to share what you have, if it is really yours, then you cannot talk about it only on your own. This has to be with the consent of Congress and everybody, every Filipino involved,” he said.
“So at this time, I am not empowered to do that,” the President added.
This is a pleasant surprise to many of us, because in his initiatives on the foreign policy front, he has generally stormed ahead on his own steam. He has pretty much decided things on his own, with little or no consultation with key leaders of Congress or his Cabinet.
His statement on the role of Congress to advise and consent to a joint exploration agreement with China in the South China Sea shows that he is fully aware of the legislature’s constitutional role in foreign policymaking.
This is why all treaties and agreements with foreign governments need to hurdle the Senate for ratification.
This is also why all appointments to the foreign service of the nation’s ambassadors require confirmation by the Commission on Appointments.
At the confirmation hearing of Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana before the appointments body, the secretary disclosed under questioning that President Duterte never consulted his Cabinet before coming out with statements regarding the termination of joint military exercises between the Philippines and the United States.
During the confirmation hearing, Lorenzana was asked by Sen. Franklin Drilon about the actual status of the military exercises with US forces, as well as the other defense agreements with the US.
In response, Lorenzana said flatly there was no decision to suspend or terminate the joint exercises, the Visiting Forces Agreement and other agreements with the US.
Lorenzana said he sought guidance from the President regarding these issues and was told to present his recommendations during the Cabinet meeting next month.
Both these presidential decisions on joint exploration and military exercises underscore the need for the President to consult with Congress and the Cabinet on major foreign policy decisions and initiatives. He is not expected to shoulder the burden alone.
When necessary, he can also consult with the people to seek consensus.
The pursuit of an independent foreign policy, that is beholden to no one but our sovereign people, is manifestly a sound and noble objective on the part of President Duterte, and it should be pursued until fully reflected in our relations with other nations.
But it is wise to recognize that the policy is best shaped and realized with the collective support of Congress and the people.