Philippine Elections and Foreign Policy By Dale Lim | May 8, 2016
Tomorrow, around 55 million Filipinos will be electing a new chief executive with a single term of six years. Given that, one of the biggest external issues that concerns us today is the question of what the government should be doing in response to the South China Sea disputes. The future remains uncertain.
Using the Philippine ‘strategy’ on the South China Sea disputes as an example, it's evident that the country lacks a clear, coherent, and consistent foreign policy. This also shows that we also lack national identity as other states see us. A brief example could be made to contrast the policy of the previous two administrations. The Arroyo administration did not only choose close cooperation in joint exercises with China, but our economic relations with them were at an all time high. This is in clear contrast to Aquino’s hostility by arbitration.
India’s foreign policy starting with Prime Minister Nehru was neutral ever since, following a non-alignment stance with any major power. Iran’s foreign policy on the other hand emphasizes an Islamic worldview with an official doctrine of hostility against the west. In both cases, we see clear cut identities, or at least perceptions, as these countries try to embody them in its foreign affairs and policy. In the Philippine case, there has always been a ‘Ramos foreign policy,’ an ‘Arroyo foreign policy,’ and an ‘Aquino foreign policy’, but nowhere near do we have a ‘Philippine foreign policy,’ as Professor Baviera points out here. Uncertainty looms over standing issues such as the arbitration case as stakeholders may have a hard time predicting the foreign policy strategy that will emerge as a result of the May 9 elections.
The Philippines could have been known as the country that stood up to a superpower neighbor no matter at what odds. We could have led other small encroached states, proving to them that international law is in fact capable of protecting. For pride's sake, we could have been the country who could have given China a hard time building its international reputation. Today, the foreign policy that the Aquino administration has built up will once again be turned into a clean slate if the opinion polls happen to be accurate.
Foreign policy experience of the presidential candidates
Secretary Mar Roxas, the standard-bearer of the current administration, vows to push for the arbitration case and its enforcement. As former trade secretary, he had considerable record when he represented the country in WTO negotiations, although this experience in itself may not be enough.
While Vice President Jejomar Binay and survey front-runner Mayor Rodrigo Duterte are considered to be well-versed in local government administration, nowhere in their career did they have the chance to do anything with foreign policy. To add, Duterte’s ‘way of talking,’ would be destructive in a world where international observers treat every word coming from the chief executive as signals and precursors to official policy. Mayor Duterte's Jetski diplomacy has clear contradiction with his preference for bilateral talks, and it would definitely do more harm than good. These two lean towards pursuing bilateral talks with China.
In terms of Senator Grace Poe’s track record, foreign policy is nowhere to be found in her already thin resume, while she also promises to continue the arbitration.
Senator Miriam Defensor will also push for the case. With a background in international law and while chairing the foreign relations Senate committee, she probably has most knowledge in this aspect among them. However, "I still fail to see a solid identity in her foreign policy strategy, with her blurting out tactless comments like 'bombahin ko yun [the Chinese].'
None among them seem to be able to build a national image in adherence to a vision in foreign affairs.
Why we lack a coherent foreign policy
Foreign policymaking is among the hardest to claim experience to since our government structure makes it inaccessible to politicians. Some states with parliamentary governments allow formal foreign policy formulation, an executive task, to ministers who are chosen straight out of the legislature. Unlike ours, it is compartmentalized to a department under the executive, so it may limit the field to diplomats by profession. It may explain why our diplomats happen to form some sort of clique among themselves.
Moreover, in a country where we perceive pressing problems as domestic, a peripheral perception on foreign affairs will likely continue among the population. Among all cabinet positions, the Department of Foreign Affairs is least likely to be a breeding ground for a president. As a result, it has always been a ‘learning-by-doing’ process for our past presidents. This trend is inevitable as long as one of the two reasons stated would give way.
Compared to poverty, crime, or education, foreign policy may not seem that important, but this may only be true to a shorter extent. In the complex global environment, an understanding of how the world around us works is extremely important. In one perspective, national security problems such as terrorism have started to cross borders, becoming more transnational, being greater than any one country could address. In another perspective, some states have been increasingly engaged in assertive actions that have to be cautious of. In this regard, it goes without saying that any international effect has a local effect, but any local effect will also ripple through with an international effect.
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