The Philippines’ Foreign Policy & National Security Ambitions for the Next Administration and Beyond
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The late Professor Aileen Baviera made two important observations about Philippine foreign policy. First, she likened it to a pendulum: every six years, the foreign policy direction of the Philippines swings wildly to the other side. Her second observation was that while the nation has accepted the president’s role as the chief architect of foreign policy, the office holder may not necessarily be up to the task. These two observations by one of the country’s most important and influential foreign policy experts will now be tested again.
In every national election, the Philippines gets the chance to refocus its priorities and recalibrate strategies geared towards achieving its national goals. This year, ten (10) candidates are vying for the position that will assume this massively challenging opportunity. The COVID-19 pandemic has glaringly illuminated many of the country’s ills such as our inadequate health infrastructure, and poor governance and systemic corruption involving government bidding and procurement processes and the health insurance system. All these, notwithstanding the consequences of the lockdowns on jobs and livelihoods, education, and ultimately, our nation’s morale, will be some of the most pressing concerns of the newly elected President of the Philippine Republic during the first year post-election.
When scrutinizing the candidates’ platforms, domestic concerns such as the ones described above commonly take center stage. Beyond headline-grabbing issues like the South China Sea or relations with China and the United States, foreign policy tends to take a back seat in agenda-setting. Many will agree that this is because the country’s strategic foreign relations are largely reactive rather than purposeful and tactical. Discontinuity and the absence of a long-term vision due to constantly changing Administrations, the lack of awareness and appreciation for the linkages between internal and external issues, and domestic opinions and contestations influencing leadership preferences are some of the structural impediments to a robust strategic external relations agenda.
It is therefore imperative that regardless of who the next Chief Executive is elected, the Administration’s exercise of agenda-building entails the construct of a national identity which reflects the synergies in the Philippines' national interests. This essentially involves making long-term, strategic policy choices that integrate our national security and foreign policy objectives, which are inextricably linked. Foremost in such an endeavor is the need to redefine national security in a manner that places primacy on addressing non-traditional security threats, which at present, pose far greater, more tangible and immediate risks to the Philippines, relative to traditional security threats. Reframing our national security interests will be drawn along the three pillars of foreign policy: political security, economic security, and safety of Filipinos abroad. Further, these will tackle, among others, food, energy and economic security, climate change, cybersecurity, and core democratic values such as liberty and human rights. These are vital to preserving our holistic security demands and aspirations; these must transcend the defense of Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity, although these will certainly remain to be central to our country’s security exigencies.
Towards a “security” new normal
The steadfast pursuit of Philippine national interest is all the more crucial and is best expressed in the Philippines’ three foreign policy pillars, upon which Manila’s principled engagement with the international community rests: promotion and protection of national security, safeguarding of Filipino nationals abroad, and attainment of economic security. Evidently, our security is paramount at home and abroad.
Human rights must be at the core of national security. The intricacies of the pandemic show the interconnections between national security, health security, environment, and human rights. Creative energies imposed on the populace should instead be unleashed on the unseen enemy by measure of preparing for future pandemics, i.e., bolstering health infrastructures, strengthening populace-friendly health protocols and policies, and calls for vaccine equity in the international community.
The Philippines must pursue the revival of a more equal and grounded Philippines-United States relations. Manila and Washington’s bilateral relations have remained steadfast in the face of disruptive circumstances. Fortunately, the resilient and longstanding institutions and ties have prevailed at length. However, this is but half the struggle. Both countries must seek a rejuvenation of bilateral relations rooted in parity in access, strategy, and assets. Similarly, a renewal of ties likewise means a renewal of commitment and responsibilities.
The Philippines, in reciprocity, must acknowledge that it cannot meet external challenges on its own accord. The region is ever-evolving, invariably shifting beyond control. While our independent foreign policy must remain steadfast, it must also be flexible and strategic in meeting its goals. Forging ties with emerging players and strengthening ties within the region, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the EU are sensible ways to achieve this. Multilateralism, international law, and diplomacy must prevail. In the same manner, our strategic relations with the international community must not be pursued at the expense of bungling our relations with China, the region’s economic powerhouse, entirely. And yet, engaging Beijing must remain principled and anchored on equality and the tenets of international law. This can be understood as cooperation with China without costing the Filipinos the Arbitration Award, which is now part and parcel of the law of the land. Regardless of how some national observers and policymakers view ASEAN, strengthening our interconnectedness with our immediate geographical neighbors remains to be a vital aspect of our foreign relations.
A reliable post-pandemic economic security
Domestically, the State’s natural resources in land, air, and sea are under constant threat from man-made machinations, whether by pollution and climate change or by foreign aggression. The Philippines is susceptible to worsening extreme weather conditions and has experienced some of the worst typhoons in the last decade. Manila must voice out the deteriorating climate conditions before the international community. The country’s and other coastal states’ survival rests on the world’s urgency and resoluteness in developing a robust, reliable, and equitable climate policy.
In the field of trade, the Philippines must broaden its participation in the global economy. The Philippines can and must drive post-pandemic economic recovery initiatives among ASEAN states and partner dialogues like the US, the EU, China, and Japan.
The Philippines will benefit from expanded trade relations with the world. The two promising major trade agreements, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), manifest potential progress towards economic prosperity and unleashing Filipino potential. However, efforts in securing the two multilateral trades have been slow. Firstly, the government, albeit a signatory in 2020, has yet to ratify RCEP. The trade agreement took effect in January 2022. Second, Manila has expressed its interest to join CPTPP and has applied for its membership to the trade agreement. Entry to both trade agreements is a step towards an international rules-based trade and towards realizing a more globalized Filipino whose eyes are set on the future.
A reliable member of international community
Because the country relies heavily on its Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), the safety of Filipinos abroad is paramount. The Filipino diaspora all over the world is a testament to the perseverance to provide for a better life. But this must be borne out of choice, not necessity. The Government must nevertheless care for Filipinos who have chosen to remain abroad. It must strengthen and improve its consular services to the overseas Filipino workers and must secure their safety wherever they may be.
The Philippines must also reinvigorate its standing as a member of the international community. Putting its best foot forward requires Manila shifting its efforts towards upholding human rights, reinforcing our compliance to international law, and embedding these values in our rubric. Effectively, we must rejoin membership to the Rome Statute to reaffirm our commitment to preserve human rights and hold to account the immorally culpable. Tangentially, our commitment to this endeavor will contribute to consolidating support for our legal case in the West Philippine Sea, vis-a-vis the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as it demonstrates consistency with our pursuit of a rules-based international order.
The Department of Foreign Affairs must continuously be enhanced and professionalized as the Philippines’ voice grows more reverberant in foreign affairs issues. All diplomatic communications, especially in areas with key strategic interests, must be centralized and fall within the exclusive purview of the Department of Foreign Affairs. Manila’s corps of diplomats is the face of Philippine foreign policy. It is therefore critical to appoint career officials with the sufficient training and expertise to lead the charge.
What about Ukraine and Russia?
While geographically distant, the Russian invasion of Ukraine holds two important lessons for the country: 1) geopolitics is going to be a continuing issue for us, and 2) we thought that wars and invasions are things of the past, we thought wrong.
Even if the Philippines is not immediately affected by the war security-wise, our attention must also be drawn into the realities of geopolitical competition. While non-traditional security matters will occupy much of our focus, we must be equally prepared for inter-state conflict because the clash between Russia and Ukraine is evidence that wars can still happen in this modern age. Are we prepared for hostilities that can potentially happen with our own neighboring bullies? Have we already achieved minimum credible deterrence and are we going to continue building this? What about our diplomatic strength? Have we proven to be a reliable partner and ally as a country? These questions should be at the heart of national security planning in the next administration.
National security and defense in the coming years
The Philippines will have to bolster its national security and defense in the years ahead. The next administration will have to plan for the immediate-, medium-, and long-term. Chief among the immediate concerns is the establishment of a consistent national security policy, one that is centralized into a single comprehensive document and is recalibrated to adapt to the requirements of this ‘new normal’ era. The government must also continue the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), the Philippine National Police (PNP), and other enforcement agencies in need of upkeep. The next administration will also have to keep tabs of salient developments in regional security, and augment security dialogues with neighboring countries. Manila’s intelligence community will also need to intensify its engagement with regional counterparts as challenges rapidly evolve in real-time. Delays in strategic policies and response are considered inaction inducing disastrous consequences.
In the medium-term, the next administration will have to strengthen the Philippines’ public and private institutions from foreign influence activities. The nucleus of all security reforms must be respect to human rights, democratic values, and the rule of law.
Finally, the next administration must initiate and embed the practice of inculcating long-term strategizing and planning. Chief among the priorities is the AFP’s modernization program. The modernization program will enter its third and final horizon in 2023 (until 2028) around the same time a new administration will be inaugurated. On another hand, overlapping mandates and responsibilities between forces and enforcement agencies have proven to be troublesome, contributing to response delays. The government may start with re-conditioning forces to govern the domains originally envisioned for them. This involves re-orienting the AFP towards external security threats and the PNP and other agencies towards internal security threats. The next administration will likewise have to introduce solutions to the AFP’s ballooning pension system to find alternative revenue streams lest the pension will continue to consume a large chunk of the Philippines’ national defense budget. Local industries will need to step up and play a bigger role in the Philippines’ pursuit of modernization and a self-reliant thrust for future defense posturing. Stimulating private investment in the development of the military industry will help fuel economic growth through an increase in capacity utilization, jobs generation and a boost in profits. Without the steel, mineral, shipbuilding, research and development, and other pertinent industries, the Philippines cannot defend itself with its own weapons and assets and will continue to be beholden to foreign influence. While cooperation and meaningful engagement are important navigating tools in the conduct of foreign policy and national defense, self-reliance is undeniably an ideal tool in the battle for survival in the international system and in the pursuit of an independent foreign policy that the Philippines must aim to endeavor.