The Philippine Ambassadors Foundation (PAFI) has recently been seized with activities concerning the first pillar of Philippine foreign policy i.e., the protection and promotion of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. We organized a roundtable on the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro. At the request of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Board of Governors and members of PAFI met with high level officers of the DFA on the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, members of PAFI participated in lectures and seminars on the West Philippines Sea. We also met with some concerned parties on the status of Sabah.
The challenges and opportunities presented by the above issues will define the success and/or failure of Philippine Foreign policy and diplomacy. It is opportune to take another look at what we did which we should not have done and also at what we should have done and did not.
The West Philippine Sea
The Philippines has consistently adopted a legal, political and diplomatic approach to the resolution of issues connected with the area. It is a correct approach and generally supported by the International Community.
The legal approach involves the Philippines hauling China to the Arbitral Panel which has asked China to submit the comments on our memorials. Of course, China expectedly rejected participating in the panel. The challenge for the Philippines is how to arrest continuing aggressive moves of China in the West Philippine Sea. Our submission to the panel has not deterred China from exercising “acts of effectiveness” in the shoal, islets and rocks in our exclusive economic zone. I have always advocated that we should have included in our submission a prayer for the Panel to grant provisional measures against the Chinese incursions. Any action on such petition will be indicative of the Panel’s initial thinking regarding our memorials. Even at this early stage, the Philippines should already think of what to do in case we win in the Panel and conversely, in case we lose our case.
The other legal approach is our advocacy for the formulation of the code of conduct in the South China. The code remains a hope, at best, because China abhors the idea of a code, which will oblige them to do or refrain from doing certain acts. This has been their underlying strategy and attitude since the time we drafted and negotiated the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. It is important for the Philippines to prepare a draft code, if it has not done so, to move the process from mere consultations to negotiations proper.
Recently, the Philippines proposed a moratorium on activities which would raise tensions in the area, citing Article 5 of the DOC. The proposal suffers from a congenital defect in the sense that the offer was made only after a like proposal has been made before by a assistant secretary of the US State Department. We should have done this earlier on our own, since we crafted Article 5 of the DOC. At this stage, we should already be aware that any initiative with US flavor will be unpalatable to China.
It is time to open lines of communication between the Philippines and China. One could not solve an issue without talking to each other, best if this line is between leaders of each country. But other avenues are available at ministerial level, senior officials, through businessmen taipans, contacts along the lines initiated by Rep. Gina De Venecia, even through political parties advocated by former Speaker Jose De Venecia. It is important to re-establish a fiduciary relationship between the Philippines and China. Otherwise, our diplomatic approach to the West Philippine Sea issues will remain at sea. We should erase fear against talking to a powerful China. The negotiating table is the greatest equalizer in diplomacy.
No matter how the picture is fudge, this Agreement seeks to send a message to China. China knows it, the US knows it, and we should know it. We send the wrong message when we consume ourselves too much on debate whether EDSA is constitutional. We send the wrong message when we debate excessively whether the “ironclad” commitment of President Obama is sufficient crutch to cover our military weakness. The US sends the wrong message when it repeats support for peaceful settlement of disputes, freedom of navigation, adherence to principles of intentional law, followed by statements that it takes no position on claimant’s position on the South China. Every pronouncement of general support for Philippine initiatives for peaceful settlement of issues in the West Philippine Sea is followed by emphasis on this importance of US strategic relations with China. Expressions of support are good acoustics but they become mere rhetoric without tangible follow-up support.
We have waltzedhru our search for peace in the decades long conflict in parts of Mindanao. The odyssey shows a mosaic of government efforts to find a lasting solution to the issue which has bedeviled resolution of conflicts. What began as essentially a domestic concern has metastasized into a situation where support from the intentional key became a condition sine qua non for success. The various foreign groups involved in the issues have as much say, if not more, than the government.
Outside efforts to nurture negotiation to peace must be restrained, respectful and sensitive to considerations of Philippine sovereignty.
The challenge for Philippine foreign policy and diplomacy is to rein in these efforts that status of belligerency is not further developed by the other side, that this negotiations for peace are not between equals and that efforts from the other side are not just fig leaves for their ultimate desire for independence.
Government negotiators should take into serious consideration the reality that Bangsamoro does not recognize the Constitution and their advocacy for a Bangsamoro identity implies that they do not consider themselves Filipinos. Of course, the priority is to solve the root causes and the roots of the impasse. This is one aspect where outside avenues could be taped. A clear example is BIMP – EAGA where Bangsamoro could own the process of cooperation with other sub-regions. The challenge here is to ensure that BIMP – EAGA benefits the people on the ground and not remain in the chambers of commerce and local government units.
Sabah is the elephant in the room which all sides pretend not to notice. Even mentioning it is taboo. The Philippines has again consigned the issue to the back-burner in the hope that something good will happen in the future. This is a classic case of foreign policy implementation by serendipity. Of course, Malaysia is happy and contented with the status quo. We can still involve the Manila Association of 1963 if we have the courage to do so which we should develop.
In more ways than one, Sabah is connected with peace in Mindanao. In more ways than one, the Tripoli Agreement with the MNLF is an equation in the search for peace. One need not denigrate the Agreement to promote the Comprehensive Agreement on Bangsamoro.
An “independent & principled” foreign policy is essentially common sense; diplomacy is essentially a pragmatic implementation of this reality. The direction of policy and diplomacy must always to determine what is the best for national interest. To achieve this, the leadership must be clear-eyed about the issue and innovative in implementing decisions made. We can only waltz through the challenges and opportunities of international relations for a while. In the long run, we will need to harness effective and agile and aggressive diplomacy to achieve an “independent and principled” foreign policy.
Amb. Lauro Baja is cairman of PAFI.