CANDIDATES in the 2022 elections should include foreign policy in their discussions and debates, the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR) said on Wednesday.

Former Interior and Local Government secretary Rafael Alunan 3rd, PCFR chairman of the board, issued the statement during an impromptu briefing with The Manila Times attended by TMT Chairman Dante Francis "Klink" Ang 2nd and PCFR board officers Alejandro Flores Jr., president, and lawyer Rafael Morales, corporate secretary.

"Foreign policy will play a very important part. If both China and the United States consider the Philippines as a 'strategic real estate' and would like to influence Philippine foreign policy through its leaders, they will definitely be engaged in the elections by hook or by crook, subtly or otherwise," Alunan said.

Asked whether he detected telltale signs that China was trying to influence the outcome of the polls next year, Alunan said, "No. They are quiet. But they are working behind the scenes."

"But true, the candidates should be able to discuss at least what we will expect from them when they get elected as president. [It's] very important," he added.

Flores noted that some Filipino voters do not care much about the candidates' foreign policy.

"Filipinos are very inward looking. We live in isolated islands. So, the tendency is they don't care what happens on the other side of the river or the ocean, or the seas. They don't care."

He said some foreigners take advantage of Filipinos' "remote perspective" on foreign policy. "They know that the Filipinos do not care, and so therefore they are very subtle. That's the exact word."

"They are very subtle but the ones who can feel their strategy, you know that there are Manchurian candidates. And so most probably you can only guess who these people are by virtue of what they do rather than what they say," Flores said.

Morales expressed hope that the Philippines "continue maintaining an independent foreign policy and to sustain the modernization of the Armed Forces so that we can have some form of deterrence in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea."

Alunan said whoever has the best and strongest influence over the Philippines "is in the best position to control events and eventually control the region."

"Because the South China Sea is the link between the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. And the South China Sea is where the great powers are competing with each other," he said.

"As we know China wants to annex the South China Sea. That's the only word that comes to mind — annex. But they're doing it in Sun Tzu fashion," Alunan said. "They're doing that without provoking others including the main rival to engage in kinetic warfare. They're trying to win it without firing a shot."

"And so far they've done very well because the United States for at least two decades has been so distracted in the Middle East by the war on terror while the Chinese have taken advantage of that by creeping their way into the South China Sea," Alunan said.

China, he said, was "trying to encroach even into the EEZs (exclusive economic zones) of neighboring countries to seize control of the entire South China Sea."