Philippine President Benigno Simeon Aquino III just gave his first State of the Nation Address (SONA). The address was in Filipino.
In rough translation, referring to the brewing maritime disputes with China early in his remarks, he said "What belongs to the Philippines belongs to the Philippines...If someone steps on Recto (Reed) Bank, he might as well have stepped on Recto Avenue" (Recto Avenue is a main thoroughfare in downtown Manila) Also, he said that "we're not looking to escalate tensions, but we are ready to defend what is ours," and that "taking the problem to ITLOS (International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea) will better ensure calm and self-restraint."
[For an official translation of the SONA, see: http://www.gmanews.tv/story/227350/nation/president-aquinos-state-of-the-nation-address-2011]
Former Senator and ambassador to the United States Ernesto Maceda, sought for comment after the speech, rightly noted that the brief section of the speech referring to defense of Philippine territory elicited the only "genuine applause", in contrast to how the President's other statements received only "polite applause." For Maceda, those statements were the "highlight" of the SONA.
The President's statements were notable in several ways.
First is that he used such courageous language in this major speech that otherwise had little to do with foreign policy. The entire speech was delivered in Filipino, in a tone that most commentators agreed was addressed to the Filipino 'everyman'. His context in referring to the disputes was the need to enhance security, in part by pursuing equipment upgrades for the Armed Forces. He had spoken of how the housing and other needs of the uniformed personnel are also being attended to. He pledged that the new acquisitions for the AFP would be free from corruption and abuse that had characterized past practices. In other words, this was yet another part of his "tuwid na daan".
Undoubtedly, though, the members of the diplomatic corps present at the SONA, particularly Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao, couldn't have helped but note that this was the only subject related to Philippine foreign policy that the President found worthy of inclusion in the speech. And note, too, that China was not mentioned by name.
Secondly, the nationalist posture was indeed rewarded by warm applause, showing that on this issue, there is significantly more unity, even among the partisan factions in Congress, than on other matters of national concern. It does seem that way when we observe that even left-leaning Akbayan party-list Representative Walden Bello has been calling for increasing the budget of the Armed Forces for purposes of defending Philippine territory and EEZ. It was also Congressman Bello who had some months ago sponsored a House of Representatives resolution calling for the Philippines to use the name "West Philippine Sea" with reference to the South China Sea.
Beyond the halls of government, traditionally it is the United States that has been the target of Philippine nationalists since independence was won, but there has never been any real unity on this due to the pervasive cultural and ideological influence that America has long enjoyed over Filipino elites. Recent Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea is helping justify even closer ties to Washington, but is it turning Beijing into the new focus of old-generation and new-generation Filipino patriots? China should be concerned that this does not happen. Some of its bilateral ties in the region (with Japan and Vietnam, in particular) are already horrendously complicated by the clash of nationalisms on both sides.
Third, P-Noy's statements were but a reiteration of positions that Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario had been articulating in the last several weeks, before and after his recent visit to China, and on the sidelines of last week's ASEAN meetings in Bali where China and ASEAN concluded guidelines for the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. If there is one thing that had weakened Philippine position on the management of these disputes in the past (from the FVR to the GMA administrations), it was the lack of persistence and consistency in approach. Consequently, the Philippines failed to exercise any leadership on this issue on the regional front. We can only hope that P-Noy and his foreign affairs alter-ego will set their sights to well beyond the end of their own terms in office, and lay the careful and solid groundwork that is needed to eventually settle these disputes in ways benefiting both the country and the region at large.