Indo-Pacific Democratic Gains? The Philippines and the Era of Strategic Competition
The international system has seen its fair share of temporal conditions and specific circumstances that determine the attitudes of particular periods in history. Today, the ideas of autocracy and democracy remain at odds against each other as international problems are structurally connected, nurturing the identities of disparate actors as they navigate the contemporary international system. After a year of significant geopolitical change that has seen the formation of new governments and the adoption of new international security arrangements, it is a reminder that domestic contexts can spill over into the international system where geopolitical developments in one region can have unintended consequences on other regions. With national elections looming, the Philippines is also set to elect a new government that will chart Philippine foreign policy for the next six years. How, then, should the Philippines navigate uncertainty and account for movement and change in the international system going forward? The international system, nevertheless, is always in flux and the Philippines must comprehend this next transition via regular interaction with other international actors, promoting stability and collective meanings and notions with comprehensive and strategic partners alike.
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, the maritime threats to Philippine sovereignty, and the inflationary risks to the economy, the Philippines must unlock possibilities that ensure security, prosperity, and order for Filipinos in the "era of strategic competition.” Change may be possible in the international system but it is incumbent upon states like the Philippines to navigate their way through uncertainty via expressions of soft and hard power in pursuit of core and instrumental interests. While strategic autonomy remains a common expression of foreign policy today, it does not mean that states and institutions are not subject to change as historical conditions and specific circumstances otherwise represent temporal attitudes. With the assignment of European and Western priority to the Indo-Pacific via their respective government programs and regional agendas, there is no reason why the Philippines should not enter into and benefit from any feasible arrangements in accordance with Philippine interests in the areas of environmental protection, security, and trade. The Philippines though must determine how it figures in the Indo-Pacific, lest the country risk squandering its location and security.
As European countries and Western institutions express their desire to shape the dynamics of the Indo-Pacific, the region has become fertile ground for geopolitics where states can accordingly cultivate other states and multi-lateral institutions to suit their own insecurities and enhance their own capabilities. With European involvement expected to increase and Western liberal democracies expected to tilt towards the Indo-Pacific, the Philippines must recognize that the country’s strategic location in the region and its unique democratic culture are considered valuable in the context of geopolitics. As the only ASEAN country given trade preference in the EU market to the Generalized Scheme Preferences Plus (GSP), the Philippines can maximize growth opportunities via mini-lateral and multi-lateral arrangements and legitimate partnerships in the country’s search for prosperity, security, and order. Given this scenario, the EU have announced that the Philippines — a post-colonial republic with a distinct democratic experience and a deep commitment to democratic values and nation-building situated at the heart of the Southeast Asian theater — is set to benefit as the country ranks high on their list of preferred Indo-Pacific partners in the areas of climate change, security, and trade. It is the process by which the Philippines can emphasize its identity as a democratic constitutional republic, assure comprehensive and strategic partners how the country perceives itself, and convince how the country can contribute to existing Indo-Pacific security arrangements such as the AUKUS trilateral security pact and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, both of which the country welcomes. But where does all this fit in terms of Philippine interests? Do we confront or engage China? States draw from diplomacy and interaction the collected meanings and notions of security and insecurity, which ultimately lead to changes in the circumstances and contexts of foreign and International Relations. Instead of “an era of strategic competition,” it seems likely that it will be “an era of shifting coalitions” constituted by heterogeneous countries that may want to reconfigure their political, military, and economic interests.
Considering the existing power structures of the global economy and the international system, IR scholars need to further examine issues of legitimacy, legitimation, and delegitimation vis-à-vis re-ordering the world as regardless of values, many state actors, institutions, and organizations remain vulnerable to coercion or compliance. Against this backdrop, perhaps Filipino scholars and diplomats can further examine narratives, practices, and policies by: first, scrutinizing how they are communicated politically to people and agents; second, analyzing whether rhetoric reflects policies; and third, investigating whether or not certain practices do indeed lead to optimal policymaking. The Philippines cannot be led into a game of mirrors. The country must be wary that paradigm shifts and challenges to the status quo are not painless endeavors. While preference shifts and the values of actors including non-state, transnational, and even those from civil society remain significant, these agents still have to contend with the current international structure as conflicts in values and conflicts in material distribution can also magnify the varying levels of tension in the international system. If the Philippines cannot capture the movement of the international system moving forward, it can prove to be too severe a test for the sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines.
Mark Angelo C. Locsin is an MA student in International Studies (European) at De La Salle University. He is also an independent consultant working on academic research projects on foreign policy. His areas of interest are the European state system, securitization theory, and norm research. He finished his BA in International Studies at DLSU and was the recipient of the Best Thesis Award for his research on UN securitization.