• Michael Henry Yusingco

Our national ‘China policy’ must be a 2022 election issue

Photo Source: Philippine Primer

The Philippine Coast Guard reported the presence of more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), all moored within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

This is another example of the Chinese government’s utter lack of respect for the Philippines’ territorial integrity. Indeed, this is just part of their overall provocative approach that continues to make the majority of Filipinos distrustful towards China’s ambitions in the region.

Pertinently, such act of aggression coincided with the launch of a movement to unify the political opponents of President Rodrigo Duterte for the 2022 elections. And crucially, one of the group’s rallying calls targets the administration’s inability and unwillingness to defend the nation’s interests in the WPS against Chinese military intrusion.

Chinese aggression in the WPS and political interference certainly qualifies as a matter of urgent concern for all Filipinos. It is thus incumbent upon every Filipino to consider this passage written by Apolinario Mabini in The True Decalogue:

“Strive for the independence of your country, because you alone can have a real interest in her aggrandizement and ennoblement, since here independence will mean your own freedom, her aggrandizement your own perfection, and her ennoblement your own glory and immortality.”

A Filipino’s Response

The administration has registered the standard rejoinder to China’s most recent display of naval domination in WPS. Experts and scholars can debate about the effectiveness of the Philippine government’s official response, but ultimately Filipinos must realize this problem cannot be addressed by any administration alone. Each and every citizen must bear the responsibility of protecting the national sovereignty.

Indeed, can Filipinos just sit idly by while their national territory is constantly threatened by a foreign superpower? Should they choose to be mere passive observers as interlopers corrupt their political system? Should they just simply suppress their fury and rage while another nation actively destroys a vital food source?

Or should Filipinos heed the words of Mabini and vigorously defend the independence of their country? Should they be more engaged and expressive in protecting their interests in the WPS? Should they be more vocal and enthusiastic in repelling foreign interference in their electoral process?

Just like the Katipuneros of yore, a point of reckoning now confronts Filipino voters. The possibility of mustering a collective response to the foreign threat must now be thoroughly discussed during this election cycle. Citizens must demand all candidates for public office to proclaim a clear and firm stance in this matter. The allocation of votes should depend on the declarations and explanations proffered by these politicians.

Responsibility to Study the China Issue

Making the need for a national China policy an election issue means voters must study this subject very well. Filipinos must put serious effort in separating fact from propaganda. This is not an easy task given the proliferation of disinformation in social media on this very topic.

As an introductory text, Filipinos can read the book, Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case against China. Here is an interesting excerpt about the intermingling of politics and policy behind the scenes:

“These events show that major decisions such as establishing a Philippine presence in contested islands could not be sustained by the advocacy of one member of the Cabinet. Thus, while Estrada took one step forward with Ayungin, he also took one step backward in the case of Scarborough.

Siazon, Estrada’s Foreign Secretary, led the opposition to running the ship aground in Scarborough. Mercado recalled that Siazon’s dream of replacing Secretary General Kofi Annan at the UN may have been a factor in his taking such a position. “This was known in the Cabinet as some of his colleagues gently ribbed him about it,” Mercado mused, and Siazon may not have wanted to displease China whose support he may have needed in his potential UN bid.” [p.18]

Filipinos can also watch the lectures of former Justice Antonio Carpio online. But fair warning, these are really formal talks and convey a ton of information about the issue. Listening to them is definitely an academic exercise and should not be taken lightly. In fact, it would be advisable to watch them in a classroom setup. Holding a moderated discussion after the viewing would be optimal.

Citizens arming themselves with knowledge and insight is a complete rebuff of the view that the Philippines is inutile against Chinese interference and aggression. Going to war with a predatorial nation is not inevitable as this administration would like to believe. But preparing the population for the possibility of war is not a bad idea either. Harkening to Mabini’s call to strive for national independence, this is arguably the duty of every Filipino.

Independent Foreign Policy

In fact, given the geopolitical developments in Southeast Asia, it is imperative for every Filipino to understand and internalize the constitutional prescription that, “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy.” [Article II, Section 7]

An integral component of this process should be a thorough public discourse about the meaning of the phrase “independent foreign policy,” which can be undertaken as part of the campaign period prior to the 2022 elections. Obviously, conducting this deliberative exchange of views in the context of Chinese military aggression in the WPS is inescapable.

Worth noting however, that having such a sense of urgency can result in policy creativity and breakthrough, potentially even to a paradigm shift amongst the populace. In this public debate, the electorate could push forward for the Philippines’ ongoing disputes in the WPS be made part of the basic education curriculum. Both voters and candidates could also revisit the proposal of making ROTC mandatory. The bottom-line remains: Filipinos have a choice in 2022 to move on from the current administration’s default policy of deference to China.

In sum, during this election cycle Filipinos must exert considerable effort to fully comprehend the complexity of the WPS issue. They can then as voters, challenge political elites to offer a coherent and credible policy response to this pressing national problem.

Filipinos deserve a government that respects their demand to assert sovereignty without any equivocation of the nation’s territorial rights in the WPS. However, this can only happen if they elect leaders who share their convictions and who can demonstrate the willingness to fight in the trenches with them.


Michael Henry Yusingco is a Senior Research Fellow of the Ateneo Policy Center of the Ateneo School of Government.

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