14 April 2011, Manila Times
News coverage of Philippine foreign policy since the start of President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s administration appears to indicate an emphasis on the invigoration of strategic cooperation with the United States, in contrast to what had been portrayed as policy directions by the Arroyo government to warm up to China at some cost to erstwhile close ties with the United States.
Among the indications of the change in directions was the decision for the President to go to Washington for his first official visit, a departure from past practice where the first visit of the four preceding heads of state (starting with former President Corazon Aquino) was reserved for a neighboring state in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Speaking before the Foreign Relations Council just before the Second US-Asean Summit in September
2010, President Aquino said: “Philippine relations with the United States are vital. The special ties that exist between us, as security allies and development partners, serve as a steady anchor in American engagement toward the Asia-Pacific.
“The earlier colonial patron-client relationship has evolved through the years into modern, mature and mutually beneficial relations.”
The appointment of Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario—frequently described in media as a US-educated and “staunchly pro-US” former ambassador to the United States—was reportedly another harbinger of things to come. In his first major foreign policy statement, the newly appointed alter ego of the President described the US as the “sole strategic partner” of the Philippines possibly offending China by forgetting that Beijing and Manila less than 15 months ago had signed a so-called “2009-2013 Joint Action Plan for Strategic Cooperation,” when then Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto Romulo clearly referred to China as “a strategic partner” for the country.
The United States, our old ally (even if neither the Philippines nor the US is seen by the other to always behave as a reliable one), lost no time in signifying its intentions to recover lost ground in terms of its influence on the new Philippine government. In January, during the first Philippines-US Strategic Dialogue, the US through visiting Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said that it was keen on supporting Philippine efforts in building its capabilities in, among others, maritime security and territorial defense. The US Pacific Command’s Admiral Robert Willard in a February press briefing in Washington, D.C., was quoted to have said that “The Philippines are located in an incredibly strategic location, adjacent to both the Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.” This follows in the wake of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s July 2010 remarks at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi, referring to the resolution of the South China Sea disputes as a “leading diplomatic priority,” with “freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons and respect for international law in the South China Sea” being in the “national interest” of the United States.
Contrast this to frequent denials or ambiguity by past American officials on the issue of whether Manila’s claimed sovereignty over the Kalayaan islands in the South China Sea, if threatened, would be covered by Philippines-US alliance obligations.
Having visited Vietnam, Japan, Singapore and Indonesia after the United States, President Aquino is now planning a state visit to China which is expected to take place in May. (Predecessor Gloria Arroyo, visited China 10 times during her presidency, while all previous presidents including Ferdinand Marcos visited only once). Expectations are rife that the China visit will help clarify where Manila stands between Washington and Beijing. The Philippines now finds itself in a very unique crossroad, with an opportunity to balance relations with both major powers and benefit from both.
The conjuncture is characterized by an Obama administration determined to make not just its military presence but its diplomatic influence more effective in the Asia Pacific. Unfortunately for the US, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis cast doubt on the amount of economic resources it can put behind such efforts, while new distractions of political instability and regime change in the oil-rich Middle East and North Africa will demand more of its attention. The US will thus be forced to rely more and more on the cooperation of its traditional Asian allies—Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand—as well as its new security partners India, Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia and others. All these countries now find themselves more willing partners of Washington, most likely because of concerns over the potential instability for the neighborhood that may arise from a weakened US and a rising China. For Filipinos, this means that strong identification with the US no longer carries the same stigma of dependency and derogation of sovereignty that it once did, when—throughout the Cold War and until the closure of the bases in 1991—the Philippines and the Philippines alone in our region was seen as little more than a client state of the US.
With less emotional and psychological baggage in the relationship, it is high time for the Philippines to take a closer look at what it wants from the alliance, and indeed to examine whether and under what conditions the security ties can continue to be relevant and in the best interests of the country. Security ties are being justified as necessary for the Armed Forces’ military modernization, yet the apparent lack of a clear and consensus-based national security policy or strategy, or even independent external threat assessments, undermines the argument for military modernization. How the Armed Forces’ modernization can serve not just the goals of national security and regional security, but also those of national development and people’s welfare, has to be better articulated before it can capture the Filipino people’s imagination and support. Until then, both sides, but the US in particular, must learn to think of bilateral ties between the two countries as a comprehensive relationship, rather than primarily a security alliance directed against terrorism, insurgencies or rising regional powers.
Ongoing peace processes to finally resolve internal insurgencies must be given priority, and international support for this from all corners is welcome. For too long, this country has expended money, materiel, and manpower in fighting wars against its own people. Where other countries had armed forces preparing to defend against external threats and security challenges, or even merely as a hedge against uncertainties, we continued to build a huge Army which over time has not only not become stronger and more effective, but has apparently become a corrupt and weak institution, in some respects slave to vested private as well as institutional interests rather than to the national interest, although certainly not lacking in capability and heroism across the ranks. It is time to give all efforts to attaining peace and internal stability, so that government can turn much-needed attention—to social justice, sustainable economic development, improving governance, yes—but also to the imperatives of securing the archipelago and its maritime resources for the benefit of our citizens.
The conjuncture is also one where China is continuously on the rise.
The economic success story is no longer a secret, and one that the world should celebrate as success for a fifth of the world’s population and on the whole a positive contribution to regional prosperity. But what are less noticed and potentially more worrisome developments in China are the resurgence of an assertive nationalism, rapid military advances and internal political transformations that show a strong and disciplined authority structure giving way to the influence of diverse interest groups as China transforms into a more pluralistic (though not necessarily more democratic) society. How to engage this China of the future is a pivotal issue in our foreign policy. The slew of issues that the Aquino government has had to manage only in the last few months is symptomatic of the ubiquitous impact of China—the Hongkong tourist hostage crisis, the deportation of Taiwanese to China, the growing number of Filipino drug offenders in Chinese prisons and facing execution, the attempts by Chinese patrol boats to disrupt Philippine oil activities on Reed Bank. And barely have our relations with China even recovered from the NBN-ZTE fiasco!
If the Philippines and China want to put relations on the right footing, there must be open recognition of the real flashpoints in relations.
Those include sovereignty disputes over territories and waters, related conflicts over maritime resources such as oil, gas and fisheries, but also whether or not the US-Philippines alliance is directed against China. As far as Manila is concerned, the key to the last question depends much on Beijing’s behavior with respect to the first two. But it is also a matter of how successfully China and the Philippines can pave the way for successful economic and development cooperation so that these begin to matter more than the above-mentioned irritants and disagreements.
The Aquino government must think ahead and define what we want from the relationship with China as well, and I imagine this includes not just mutual economic benefit but mutual respect, each side taking the other one seriously and handling relations with great sensitivity. We have already laid out the roadmaps for cooperation in a number of bilateral and Asean-level agreements with China, but on our side, we must provide the wherewithal and the political will.
Just as the Philippines should move away from its past excessive dependence on the US, we, however, don’t want to swing to the other extreme side only to fall into the clutches of a new hegemon, if indeed the China of the future were to emerge as one. Our government must be able to lead the nation in engaging both Washington and Beijing, bilaterally and in a regional context (and even on the global stage) on the basis of what is good for the country and the Filipino people not just now, but 30 or 50 years from now.
This requires deliberation and careful calibration, not extreme swings or knee-jerk reactions. Meanwhile, we can only urge both great powers not to compete but to play constructive roles in bringing about true progress and security for all. For this to happen, they must be ready to be co-responsible with other regional states, the Philippines included, for preserving not the balance of power, but a balance of interests and welfare.