Foreign policy considerations for the next Philippine president
Updated: Feb 15
Photo Source: ABSCBN News
On May 9 the Philippines will elect its 17th President who will serve a six year-term starting on June 30. Outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor will inherit major domestic problems, including the health and socio-economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond these issues, however, the next administration would also face immense foreign policy challenges at a time of global geopolitical turmoil. The president is, after all, the commander in chief of the armed forces, and the chief architect of the country’s foreign policy.
Like in previous presidencies, the South China Sea (SCS) dispute will be a centerpiece security and foreign policy concern. The SCS is an area of competition between Washington and Beijing – the latter seeks to expand its dominance in the First and Second Island Chains to showcase its rise as the regional hegemon while the U.S. sees its actions in the ongoing maritime disputes as part of global force posture to support allies threatened by China. Stuck in between are claimant-states that see the dispute in more limited terms such as sovereign claims, but at the same time avoid its escalation into a proxy conflict between superpowers. As such, the contested waters are valuable not only for its resources or actual military significance, but also its broader strategic and diplomatic value that affect national prestige.
Ultimately, the next president will grapple with how the Philippines can protect and advance its national interests amidst the intensification of geostrategic competition, cognizant of its limited capabilities. The 2016 presidential transition from Benigno S. Aquino III to Duterte saw a drastic swing of the foreign policy pendulum on China from combative to conciliatory. Another similar major overhaul of the country's external relations would further undermine Manila's credibility and even directly contribute to political uncertainty in the region. This is not to suggest that the current approach to foreign policy does not require any change. To the contrary, a more nuanced and coherent approach to international relations, anchored on the national interest, is needed to enable the country to take advantage of the opportunities, and manage the challenges while being nimble enough in order to navigate through the volatile security environment.
While the Duterte government provided China with a “soft landing” when the SCS arbitral ruling came out, the outgoing administration’s efforts to undermine traditional security relationships has arguably limited the Philippines’ maneuverability and choice when it comes to confronting security challenges. Despite the administration’s initiatives to advance closer geopolitical confluence between Manila and Beijing, China has continued with it assertive actions in the SCS, and has delivered little on investment pledges. To note, unlike great powers, small powers, such as the Philippines, do not have abundant resources in conducting foreign relations. Thus, expanding diplomatic space for maneuver and choice is a small power’s strategic imperative. For small powers, the establishment of security relations with other countries creates another platform for the pursuit of its own interests especially in the context of shared security challenges.
In this regard, the next administration needs to strengthen the country’s security relations with like-minded nations. The Philippines-U.S. alliance, under the outgoing administration, suffered its most serious crisis since Manila’s 1991 decision not to extend the presence of American military bases in the country. Following previous pronouncements and actions aimed to roll-back defense cooperation, the Duterte administration abrogated the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 2020. Although Manila subsequently recalled the VFA termination in 2021, such decisions arguably placed a dent on the Philippines’ reliability as a security partner.
Indeed, the 17th Philippine President needs to reinvigorate the country’s reputation as an international partner. However, the next administration could potentially face a similar crisis in the Philippines-U.S. alliance. In 2024, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) will reach its ten-year mark. Although the agreement provided a clause that it “shall continue in force automatically” after ten years, some measure of uncertainty may be expected, with some members of the Philippine congress already calling either for EDCA’s review, or termination. Cognizant of the China’s maritime expansionism, there is a strategic imperative to increase the rotational presence of U.S. forces in the country – a key objective of EDCA.
The year 2024 is also an important year for the Philippines-Viet Nam strategic partnership. In 2019, the two countries signed the Philippines-Vietnam Plan of Action for the Implementation of Strategic Partnership, an agreement which will end in 2024. In addition, within the first year of the next presidential term, the new administration may face another decision to enhance the Philippines-Japan strategic partnership. In 2017, Manila and Tokyo signed a five-year bilateral cooperation agreement to advance the strategic partnership. The said agreement will come to an end in October 2022, or about four months into the next administration. In both strategic partnerships, the incoming government has the opportunity to take stock of the achievements of previous cooperative agreements, and articulate a vision on how to move forward.
Japan and Viet Nam are two countries with which the Philippines share strategic interests. With the three countries having territorial and maritime disputes with Beijing, they are at the forefront of China’s expansionist agenda in the region. Their territories (or at least portions thereof) are part of the First Island China which China seeks to dominate. Clearly, there is a strategic imperative for the three countries to cooperate. Cognizant of the shared security interests, Tokyo has been helping the Philippines to strengthen its naval and coast guard capabilities. During the Aquino administration, Manila and Hanoi collaborated to push for stronger ASEAN statements on the SCS.
Beyond bilateral security relationships, the incoming administration will also face challenges and opportunities in the multilateral front, particularly with the Philippines’ upcoming rotational chairmanship of ASEAN in 2027. However, if the political crisis in Myanmar continues for next couple of years, Manila must be prepared to host ASEAN earlier than scheduled, likely in 2026. Indeed, this was the case in 2006 when Myanmar was pressured to forgo its chairmanship, which instead went to the Philippines. Beyond this issue, the 17th Philippine President, together with the leaders of the other nine ASEAN member states, will confront the challenge of ensuring that ASEAN remains relevant and resilient given that major power competition has exposed some the organization’s limitations and internal divisions.
As noted earlier, the SCS will be among the top foreign policy concerns of the next president. In this context, managing Philippines-China relations will be a major challenge. Throughout the next six years, PRC is expected to continue gray zone coercion activities in the SCS through, among others, the use of the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the maritime militia. Moreover, the Philippines’ Malampaya gas field in the SCS is projected to be depleted by 2027. Hence, protecting the country’s territorial integrity and maritime rights, as well as freedom of navigation and overflight, are among the strategic interests of the Philippines in the SCS.
Beyond the maritime domain, Beijing may also intensify – within the Philippines’ land territory – other gray zone activities that should be increasingly reviewed by the intelligence or national security agencies, such as offshore gaming operations, national power grid, political influence operations, telecommunications, disinformation campaign, among others. There have been concerns about Chinese espionage, and the military dual-use and control of critical infrastructures – similar to projects under Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This does not suggest, however, that Manila must not diplomatically engage Beijing where cooperation is possible. Channels for communication must always remain open. Indeed, even at the height of their Cold War rivalry, the U.S. and the Soviet Union maintained communication lines open. After all, in international relations, it is said that “we can choose our friends but not our neighbors.” Rather, what the foregoing suggests is that the Philippines can leverage its alliance with the U.S., and its security partnerships with Australia, Japan, and Viet Nam in developing capacity on how to counter gray zone and the overall security challenge coming from China. Indeed, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, China has been more assertive in the realm of foreign affairs. As such, beyond the SCS, possible armed confrontation in Taiwan, which is also a geopolitical flashpoint in the region, presents another possible challenge for the next administration.
Apart from strengthening bilateral and multilateral security relations, the new administration also needs to beef up the implementation of the Revised Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program to provide the country the wherewithal to support its foreign policy agenda and increase the weight of its voice on regional security. A recent study from the Ateneo School of Government observed that despite pressing external security challenges, there is “nominal evidence hinting at the defense budget’s continuous prioritization of internal security threats.” In order to build a more credible external defense posture, the next commander in chief needs to address logisitical, doctrinal, organizational, and funding concerns. Strengthening the AFP also allows the Philippines to become a more reliable security partner.
These are some of the opportunities and challenges that the next administration may face. However, predicting developments in foreign affairs is increasingly difficult. Because of the possibility of unforeseen incidents within the next presidential term, the new administration may use and review guidelines under the National Crisis Management Core Manual, and other protocols in order to avoid miscalculation, and prevent incidents from spiraling out of control.
Clearly, the foreign policy stakes are high in the next Philippine presidential election. As such, the next administration must develop a strategic approach that is practical and prudent, while still accomplishing the maximum amount of benefit to Philippine national interests. At the same time, the country’s vulnerabilities and the constraints imposed the strategic environment must not be downplayed. As Kenneth Waltz argued, “weak states operate on narrow margins. Inopportune acts, flawed policies, and mistimed moves may have fatal results.”
Mico A. Galang is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Santo Tomas (Manila, Philippines). The views expressed are the author’s alone.