Formulating Foreign Policy: All Bark

by Jeraldine Pascual

Much like prerequisites for taking a class, foreign relations is a subject that a president must study. The whole scheme of international ties remains a daunting puzzle that the new government has to understand, as he attempts to hold in balance its key relationships —developing ties with China and Russia while holding on to its alliance with the US, the country’s longest standing partner. Given his flip-flops and inconsistencies, the administration has only managed to bark profusely, sending strong and disturbing messages for all to hear.

AT NO other time in recent history has the Philippines been in need of leaders well-versed in foreign policy issues and fluent in the language of diplomacy. The conduct of international relations in an age of open borders, multinationals and fair trade requires experience and exposure to the complexity of issues that confront even small countries like the Philippines.

China’s aggression in disputed waters including the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) has sucked the government into an international turmoil that involves potential conflict between the US and China, along with other regional partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  China’s huge economy has confirmed its status as a global player. It will no longer ever be in the sidelines. Without military power of its own, the Philippines pursued and won a high-stakes arbitration case in an international court for its territorial integrity and its sovereignty.

As a former mayor of Davao City, President Rodrigo Duterte is clearly new to the terrain. And yet he has asserted a bold, if not controversial position, forcing no less than the world’s super power to review longstanding bilateral relations with a former colony.

Upsetting the Eagle

Foreign relations are conducted through established protocols, including language designed to make a point through a balance of intended alternative meanings. He took umbrage at remarks by a US state department official who expressed the opinion that human rights may be included in the bilateral talks between the US and Philippine leaders in the ASEAN summit scheduled in September 2016. Duterte responded with the typical expletive-laced speech directed against then President Barack Obama, language which Duterte would repeat to defend his much vaunted “war on drugs” against other criticism of extrajudicial killings (EJK) and of violations of rule of law.

He responded in the same manner to former Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN) Ban Ki-moon as well as the European Union (EU) who voiced the same critical concerns.

It was during his state visit to China on October 20 that he announced his “separation” from the US in the military and economic fields. Announcing that “America has lost,” he said that he has realigned himself with China’s “ideological flow.”

He repeatedly expressed his determination to “divorce” himself from the US: threatening to abrogate US-PH treaties and agreements for mutual defense and to end joint military exercises that brought American soldiers periodically to work with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

Duterte said, we’re not “mendicants” and the Philippines can survive without help from the US, the EU and human rights groups.

And yet, a reconsideration of funding by US aid agency Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) irked him just the same. On December 17, the president told MCC to “eat its money” and again threatened to repeal the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), since Filipino soldiers, he claimed, were “ten times better” than American soldiers anyway.

Former security adviser to then President Fidel V. Ramos, Jose Almonte, saw these colorful statements as detracting from Duterte’s other accomplishments. For the retired military general, the best foreign policy entails maintaining friendship with traditional allies, at the same time working hard to be friends of others, “even if they are enemies of our allies.”

Former diplomat Narciso Reyes, Jr. shared the same sentiment. In his column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, he wrote, “The paradox of ‘separation’ is obvious when one considers the massive fact that China and America are entangled in a strategic accommodation, each dependent on the other for important economic security benefits.”  A simplistic approach in foreign affairs, Reyes said, “deprives the Philippines of pragmatic, diversified gains in an interdependent world economy.”

With the end of the Obama administration, however, Duterte has warmed up to newly-elected US President Donald Trump, who, Duterte claimed, approved of his methods in dealing with the Philippines’ drug problem.

Dancing with the Dragon

The Benigno Aquino III administration’s arbitration case against China’s intrusions in the West Philippine Sea finally saw victory on July 12, when the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration dismissed China’s claim to the disputed waters as having no legal basis. The UN-backed International Arbitral Tribunal ruled that China’s aggressive, expansionist moves violated the Philippines’s sovereign rights to its exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Since the start of the arbitration case in 2013, China has refused to participate in the proceedings. As expected, it also refused to recognize the Hague ruling.

The Duterte regime has inherited from the Aquino administration the task of negotiating with China and consulting with neighboring countries who are claimants to the South China Sea themselves. More work on the government’s part has to be done following the decision, as fisherfolk and journalists reported being chased away by the Chinese Coast Guard from the Scarborough Shoal, even after the arbitration.

The president has definitely been friendlier to China, making his first state visit within four months of taking office. He set aside any reference to the arbitral ruling during his entire visit and came home with 13 signed agreements on bilateral cooperation and pledges for an estimated 24 billion worth of investments. He was obviously pleased with the “productive” exchange with President Xi Jinping.  Soon after the visit, fisherfolk claimed they were now fishing in the waters without being chased away by the Chinese vessels still patrolling the area.

Last December 19, Duterte announced his willingness to share with China whatever oil reserves there may be in the Spratlys, which would mean that he was open to joint exploration in the area.  This was not the case two months earlier when he thought that proposing such an enterprise “would not be right” and that it would need Congressional approval.

In separate interviews, Associate Justice Antonio Carpio and former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay had agreed that joint activities in the disputed area — unless on contract basis — would be unconstitutional. Hilbay added that joint development implies that China has rights to Philippine exclusive territories.

Duterte told CNN Philippines last December 29 that he would assert the ruling “when the minerals are already being siphoned off.” He also shrugged off the reported militarization of the Spratlys which had received intensified attention from international media.

Wooing the Bear

China was not the only ally that loomed large in Duterte’s mind. On the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders’ Meeting held in Peru last November, he met with his “idol” Russian president and strongman Vladimir Putin. As dismissive of the UN as Duterte, Putin had withdrawn Russia from the International Criminal Court (ICC), his decree coming a day after the UN General Assembly condemned human rights abuses in the Crimea which Russia has occupied since 2014. The Philippine president said he might just follow suit and withdraw from the UN, considering that body’s failure to stop wars and bloodshed.

Should China and Russia — who conduct annual joint naval exercises — decide to create a new world order, Duterte said he would be the first to join it. After a shower of praises for the Russian president and an enthusiastic sharing of his criticisms of the US, Duterte earned an invitation to Moscow from Putin.

Russia is after “partnership and friendship” and not a military alliance, at least according to Russian Ambassador Igor Khovaev. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was not keen on buying arms from Russia, as he deemed the country’s offer of a submarine and military drones “expensive and unnecessary”.

Obviously, Duterte has not seen fit to consult with national defense and security clusters before announcing radical shifts in his diplomatic forays.

Burn and Build?

Duterte has been indulgent of China — the same country whose businessmen back the Philippines’ war on drugs, the same country he accused of harboring drug lords. Former Foreign Affairs chief Albert del Rosario called the president’s policy “difficult to comprehend,” as it seems to favor China despite its violations of the country’s rights in the West Philippine Sea.

Retired ambassador Jose Apolinario Lozada found Duterte’s foreign policy “directionless,” since the president has not yet walked the talk in making the country truly independent. Indeed, as Jose Almonte put it, “If we had to have an effective foreign policy, we have first to ensure that our nation becomes rich, prosperous and strong so that we can relate with the people outside, not as a dependent, but as somebody who could be useful to the world.”

Much like prerequisites for taking a class, foreign relations is a subject that a president must study. The whole scheme of international ties remains a daunting puzzle that the new government has to understand, as he attempts to hold in balance its key relationships —developing ties with China and Russia while holding on to its alliance with the US, the country’s longest standing partner. Given his flip-flops and inconsistencies, the administration has only managed to bark profusely, sending strong and disturbing messages for all to hear.

It is unfortunate that the public has little interest in foreign affairs, given its remoteness from ordinary life. News that have involved officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs are often about the problems of Filipinos working overseas, something that is of immediate interest to many at home. But in general, Filipinos are islanders who find it difficult to look at the world beyond the coastlines as relevant, even as so many of us are so quick to leave our shores for greener pastures elsewhere.

This parochialism is clearly out of place in today’s conditions. The press has done little to build up a global outlook that would help Filipinos deal with the complexity of international affairs when these have an impact on national life.

The coverage of regional and international affairs barely gains a page in many newspapers. The media applies the simple template of quoted statements to foreign policy news. With a president like Duterte, what he says should be examined and assessed by media experts, but there are not too many of these. The discussions then are carried on through op-ed pieces and TV talk shows, where academics and other pundits hold fort. These formats have served to engage a wider public but more needs to be done.

Given the swift and radical changes all over the world, a new cast of leaders may indeed create a new world order. What this is about and where it leads the country is everyone’s concern.

So far, coverage of foreign policy remains inadequate, as reports concentrate on the grand gestures and amplified statements, but stop when the president’s attention is drawn elsewhere.

Looking forward, perhaps Duterte’s chairmanship of the ASEAN is another subject that media should consider for deeper study. More than the overwhelming show of personality, the summit of ASEAN leaders and partners calls for both government and media to get their separate acts together.


Fishing in Panatag: No More Bullies 

Screengrab from CNN Philippines’ website.


CHEERS TO some media organizations for keeping tabs on the situation of Filipino fisherfolk in the Scarborough Shoal (locally called Panatag Shoal), following the reported withdrawal of Chinese fishing vessels from the area.

In a 2012 standoff, China secured the shoal, preventing Filipinos from entering what has been their traditional  fishing ground. In 2013, the Philippines filed an arbitration case against China to assert its sovereign rights to Scarborough and the Spratly Islands and won a favorable ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague last July 12. Chinese forces initially did not recognize the ruling and, according to reports, drove Filipino fishermen from Panatag two days after the court handed down the decision.

ABS-CBN 2’s Chiara Zambrano, CNN Philippines’Camille Abadicio and Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Allan Macatuno joined a fishing expedition to Panatag to document the challenges that confronted locals entering the area. While the reports said no interference by the Chinese forces had occurred yet, large ships of the Chinese Coast Guard remained, blocking access to some parts of the lagoon and forcing their boats to seek another route to the waters. While they were thankful that they could now go there to fish, they remain watchful and wary of these vessels stationed there.

As a sector often ignored by the press, the fishing community deserves this attention and to be heard regarding the conditions that affect them. With President Rodrigo Duterte declaring that he would issue an executive order declaring Scarborough Shoal a protected marine sanctuary, media need to sustain coverage of this issue and to focus on the government’s response to improve the livelihood of fisherfolk.

Instructive Interview

Cheers to ANC’s Nancy Irlanda for a most instructive interview with former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay on Dateline Philippines (Nov. 5). Hilbay was part of the Philippine delegation that represented the country at the hearings in arbitration court. According to him, the departure of Chinese forces from Scarborough Shoal is a form of recognition of the tribunal’s decision.

However, Hilbay said that President Duterte’s “unorthodox” style in dealing with the country’s foreign relations should not risk waiving what the country had clearly won: the recognition of its sovereign rights over these territories. The president’s efforts to establish a strong alliance with China should not be achieved at the cost of the strategic enforcement of Arbitral Tribunal’s award.

Hilbay also walked through constitutional issues. He explained the basis on which Duterte should pursue his “joint development” idea. Entering into contracts is allowed by law as long as the sovereign rights of the Philippines are recognized. But joint development, he said, implies recognition that China has a right to Philippine waters. Joint development of areas that have been ruled as within the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines is unconstitutional, including the Reed Bank, a submerged reef which is being explored for energy reserve. Joint development in that area is unconstitutional. The President, even Congress, cannot do anything about this, Hilbay pointed out.

Clearly, the source had much to share with the public on an issue that had been treated by the media with more sentiment than understanding. Irlanda’s questions deftly drew out his explanations so that he could amplify the scope of issues, reflecting how well she herself had studied the subject of her interview.


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