INDEPENDENT PHILIPPINE FOREIGN POLICY: Will it gain ground under Duterte?

Bobby M. Tuazon

(Paper presented by CenPEG Policy Director Bobby M. Tuazon as Keynote Speaker during the 24th General Assembly of the Ecumenical Bishops Forum on Nov. 21, 2016.)

Long overdue for various reasons since the founding of the present republic – particularly in the 1950s-1960s with the resurgence of nationalism – “independent Philippine foreign policy” is a sovereign and political issue whose time has come today. Although it is a political platform of the progressive and anti-imperialist movement for decades the idea has sparked a new momentum under President Duterte – who, as he claims, is the only leftist President ever. However, the issue of an independent foreign policy today cannot be attributed to the President alone. It should be seen, rather, as the result of a confluence of internal and external conditions and developments.

The unsettled issue of an independent foreign policy is rooted in the following conditions: First, a long colonial history – 400 years under Spain, US and Japan, or 470 years and still running due to the country’s neo-colonial relations with America. Second, the Philippines’ special ties with the US since its nominal independence in 1946 has made the Philippines greatly dependent on the US economically and, most especially, on defense and security. And third, such neo-colonial relationship guaranteed the rule of the domestic elite in both economic, financial, and political realms, allowed the concentration of wealth and resources in a few families even as they and their cohorts continue to engage in plunder, corruption, and other heinous and social crimes thus resulting in a weak economy and a weak, elite-driven state.

Why a weak state?

Why a weak state? The continued marginalization of the majority of Filipinos from both political and economic exercises disables the state system of a process of democratic consolidation and public participation thus allowing its institutions chiefly the government to rule solely for the narrow interests of a few who are generally beholden to and benefit from American and other foreign interests. Taken together, these conditions did not – and do not – allow the forging of an independent foreign policy.

The singular objective of the United States in continuously tightening its colonial and neo-colonial grip on the Philippines since the turn of the 20th Century is to use the country not only to promote its economic interests in the region but also – and most importantly today – to meet its geo-political objective as the unchallenged superpower in Asia Indo-Pacific and the rest of the world. In other words, the US’ continued dominant presence in the Philippines is tightly woven to its geo-political objectives not only in the region but the rest of the world as well.

Attesting to such American interests in the Philippines as part of the region are some key documents, such as Sen. Albert Beveridge’s critical speech in 1900 where he strongly endorsed American colonial takeover of the Philippines as the springboard for establishing US supremacy in the Pacific; PPS/23, a Top Secret State Department policy paper in 1947 which called for ensuring that every president and government in the Philippines remain “friendly to America” to protect US security interests in the Far East (East Asia) following which a string of post-independence military and trade “agreements and treaties” were imposed on the fledgling Philippine government; the establishment of SEATO in 1954 (Manila) as a defense pact in support of America’s wars of aggression in Southeast Asia; as well as the Visiting Forces Agreement (1999), MLSA (under GMA), and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA, April 2014). Aside from the previous agreements, EDCA serves to support US’ pivot (or rebalance) to Asia where the prepositioning of naval and air forces and equipment to Asia Indo Pacific is to be completed in 2020.

Missed opportunities

Moreover, the failure to pursue an independent foreign policy by previous Presidents and administrations can also be attributed to their disinterest in – if not outright opposition to - the Third World’s anti-colonial, independence, and state-building struggles since the mid-1950s (Bandung Conference, April 1955), non-alignment or neutrality movement (espoused by the Non-Aligned Movement or NAM, 1961), and concerted efforts for a New International Economic Order (NIEO) whereby Third World states are treated as an equal by the dominant capitalist countries. There were a few attempts to promote the Philippines’ external relations with its Asian neighbors independent of the US (such as during the Carlos Garcia period, 1957-1961) but such efforts were soon undercut by political forces who did not want to “anger” the US and whose ties to America favored their commercial and political interests. Furthermore, the country’s enduring pro-US Cold War policy of anti-communism isolated the Philippines from extending its diplomatic and economic relations with Filipino leaders preferring to deal only with a few countries regardless whether they included dictatorial regimes aligned with the US.

Impact of having no independent foreign policy

The impact of not having and independent foreign policy or a policy that veers away from the country’s mendicant and dependent foreign policy on the US has been:

  1. Forcing the Philippines to fight costly proxy wars and to support America’s wars of aggression from Korea and Indochina, and recently, in the Middle East in the process earning for the Philippines new enemies instead of new friends;
  2. Perpetual dependence on the US for counter-insurgency support and military aid / modernization, as well as for anti-terrorism the result of which continues to weaken the country’s own security capability;
  3. Perpetuation of the local, pro-US elite and family dynasties who remain dominant in the country’s politics and governance;
  4. Failure to develop a foreign policy that supports the country’s domestic requirements such as economic development, poverty alleviation, and other pro-people programs; and
  5. Long-drawn caution if not suspicion by many nations upon relating with the Philippines due to the latter’s being branded as a “puppet state” of the US (particularly post-Bandung, 1955).

Previous Presidents simply refuse or continue to disregard the basic and universal foreign policy theory: “There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”

Prospects under Duterte

Now the critical question: Is there a bright prospect of having an independent foreign policy under Duterte?

President Duterte’s tough talk on the US – being the only Philippine president and probably Asian leader today – to stand up on the US resonates not only in the region but the rest of the world. Still, some governments and their leaders particularly in Asia ask, first, whether this is for real; second, whether Duterte has the capability; third, whether he can last the presidency (6 years); and, fourth, whether there will be a continuity in this new foreign policy after him.

Although he has scaled down his tone with regards his tirades on the onerous defense treaties and war exercises with the US, President Duterte continues to blaze the trail in forging closer bilateral relations including economic cooperation and partnerships with China and Russia – and continues with his megaphone diplomacy to equalize, if not break, the master-colony relations between the US and the Philippines. Definitely, the $24-bn in investments and soft loans yielded by his state visit in China is no small measure for rebuilding relations with Beijing aside from similar commitments probably including military equipment that lie ahead in the country’s revitalized ties with Russia. Interestingly, Mr. Duterte has clarified that whatever financial pledges committed by both countries will be repaid by his government in due time.

Trouble in Washington

On the other hand, the new diplomacy opened by Duterte has spelled trouble in Washington since the implications of the presidential moves – such as resuming bilateral talks with Beijing based on common interests that unite and not on divisive issues, e.g., the South China Sea maritime and territorial disputes defy US pressures and the influential pro-American elite. The new-found bilateral approach taken by Mr. Duterte has practically checkmated US attempts to use the Philippines as a cannon fodder against China even as it also eased up tensions in the SCS much to the discomfort of the Pentagon. What will be the future of America’s rebalance strategy and how should Washington deal with Duterte will all depend on the foreign policy of the new US president, Donald Trump.

On the other hand, Duterte’s initial bilateral talks with Russian President Vladimir Putting in Peru also fits into Moscow’s new foreign policy initiative – “Turn to the East”. To be expected is the Philippines’ formal connection to China’s One Belt and One Road (OBOR), where Russia is an active partner in Europe while in the East more Asian countries are forging joint agreements with China on interconnectivity through building express ways, modern railways, new economic zones, and other infrastructures.

The timeliness of Duterte’s different foreign policy is clear. The Duterte administration looks forward to a big infusion of investment capital that will boost programs on infrastructures, transportation connectivity, agriculture technology, trade, information technology, as well as drugs rehabilitation. Whether any envisioned economic growth that will ensue will benefit the poor majority is another question, however.

Global trends

Globally, Duterte’s foreign policy initiatives are also timely in the light of the following global conditions:

  1. The world is becoming multi-polar – in place of the current uni-polar system, i.e., US as the lone superpower. The prospects of a new multipolar world are indicated by the continued weakening of the US and European economies, by America’s setbacks in its wars of aggression, whether in the Middle East or eastern Europe; and, on the other hand, by the rise of emerging powers the likes of China, Russia, as well as India, Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia. US global influence is also in decline with its failure to kick off the much-touted Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) while its own close allies such as the UK, South Korea, Israel, and other states are boarding the OBOR as well as Beijing’s proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP);

  2. The strengthening of Asia as the world’s new economic center with China as the region’s growth engine. In due time, Asia will reclaim its historical legacy – for centuries it used to be the growth center of the world until the acceleration of imperialist plunder, occupation, and oppression by the turn of the 19th Century leaving the region divided, poor, stagnant, and in despair.

That is why, on this note, the thrust of the Duterte administration is for the Philippines to rekindle and redefine its links in Asia – a region where its peoples share a historic legacy of peace, harmony, friendship, and other constructivist values.

Preliminary appraisal

As far as my preliminary appraisal is concerned, Mr. Duterte’s diplomatic route in promoting robust bilateral relations with China, Russia, and ASEAN is correct and constitutes the first act toward constructing an independent foreign policy. An independent foreign policy should be seen as a long attritive work in progress, definitely with some ups and downs. But the true measure of an independent foreign policy is that it should be coherent and enduring, must promote the country’s economic growth for the benefit of the people, must eventually make the Philippines as an equal, friendly, and peaceful partner of the world community; and must renounce war as an instrument of foreign policy. It should promote the country as a free and sovereign state.

Foreign policy reform: Risks and challenges

The reform of the Philippines’ foreign policy is without its risks and challenges. As in other policy areas, Duterte’s pragmatic foreign policy initiative has yet to shape a coherent approach especially at the Cabinet level. Long indoctrinated and trained under American militarism while serving as Pentagon’s surrogate army and security force, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) must be swept into line to support their commander-in-chief’s policy reform. Some influential sectors, such as the Filipino-Chinese business community, are joining the bandwagon of active bilateral relations with China and Russia but their participation is driven primarily by profit and not by the demands of an independent foreign policy. Among the most avid supporters for a continuing pro-US unequal alliance are their local spokespersons such as former President Fidel V. Ramos and former Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario. (Already out of government, it is doubtful however whether they can still muster a strong influence to successfully oppose the move for an independent foreign policy.) The most formidable challenge will come from the US government with all its power to ensure that its strong military presence in the country is not undermined by a maverick President of a Third World country.

Meantime, parallel and stronger efforts by non-government sectors and the progressive moment to promote an independent foreign policy should continue and be sustainable. Such policy reform cannot be entrusted primarily on the sitting President given not only the shifting dynamics of Philippine politics and governance but also due to its vulnerabilities to being inconsistent, compromising, and hence to lack of continuity. The move for an independent foreign policy must be both institutional and mass movement-based. #

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