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Angels and demons of Philippine foreign policy

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By Lauro L. Baja Jr., VERA Files
DFA headquarters

In various prose, Philippine foreign policy revolves and operates under three pillars: protection of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the republic; promotion of the economic interests of the country; and protection and promotion of the welfare of overseas Filipino workers.

In pursuit of these pillars, the Philippines has conducted its foreign policy with significant stress on the importance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and its member countries, the strategic reality of China as an important neighbor to the north, and the continuing importance of the US as a treaty ally.

Contemporary global and regional developments are putting to test these pillars and realities. Where really is the Philippine foreign policy?

Malaysia and Sabah

As events unfold on the monthlong standoff in Sabah, it is becoming clear that there was a failure of intelligence on the part of the Philippine and Malaysian governments. How come they missed the preparations for the so-called “excursion”/“invasion,” and its actual operation? If there is indeed a conspiracy to derail the peace process or destabilize the present administration, why did they fail to nip it in the bud?

There was a failure of statesmanship. Saddled with concerns about elections in their countries, both heads of government painted themselves into their respective corners by their words and inactions and consequently were left with no recourse but to harden their positions.

Many sectors of Philippine society are unable to understand the inability of President Aquino to talk to the Sultan. The President could have said, “Come back, my people, to your other home and we will help you resolve your problem.”

There was a failure of diplomacy. Because we were “confused” and paranoid, we allowed Malaysia to take the dominant and complete control of the standoff. Our request for clearance of our humanitarian ships remains pending; our request for full access to Filipinos detained in Sabah was denied in contravention of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations; bombs fell on the hapless Filipinos in Lahad Datu while our own Secretary of Foreign Affairs was asking for whatever extensions of whatever deadline.

And we are mute to pronouncements of “Sabah belongs to Malaysia forever.” And we continue to understand Malaysia’s actions and words.

Have we really lost Sabah forever? If we do not define our position now and pursue the claim, that will be a self-fulfilling eventuality.

Putting the claim in the backburner was a mistake; keeping it there is not a policy, it is an illusion, a mirage. It is better to pursue the claim and avoid a possible default and estoppel than not to have pursued it at all. In the process, we may be able to obtain some strategic space.

Meawnhile, let’s avoid playing into Malaysia’s hands by our words, our actions, and inactions. What Malaysia is doing in Sabah during this standoff is exercising “effectivities,” having in mind their success in the International Court of Justice where the court awarded the islands of Sipadan and Ligutan to Malaysia over Indonesia.

“Effectivities” are acts of sovereignty by the executive, legislative and quasi-judicial units of government over a period of time without interruption or protest.

Pursue the claim now before we really lose Sabah by default. The cornerstone of our action should be the Manila Accord of 1963 and Article 33 of the United Nations Charter. We have all the studies we need. What we need is to prepare and avoid past mistakes when we “slept on our right” and were unable to prevent those flawed processes over Sabah because we were naïve and unprepared.

China and West Philippine Sea

The scenario in Sabah is being replicated in the West Philippine Sea. A stronger neighbor is bullying a relatively weak and timid one.

China is exercising the same “effectivities” that Malaysia is doing in Sabah by its statements on land and actions at sea. Statues placing islands in the South China Sea under the administrative supervision of Hainan; increasing sovereignty patrols in the area; plans to board vessels in the South China Sea and increasing war drills are “effectivitiies” to show they are in control.

Both China and Malaysia are aware that this concept or principle of “effectivities” has already become the basis of other countries, like the territorial or maritime disputes between Chile and Peru, and between Colombia and Nicaragua.

There are other pending matters which need priority attention in our relations with China. That we have gone to the arbitral tribunal will not stop China from continuing activities in South China Sea.

We must ask for “provisional remedies” against specific actions which China is now conducting there.

We must develop a template for joint development in the West Philippine Sea where it is reported China has recently announced its interest.

We must re-examine our position against bilateral approach to dialogue on West Philippine Sea issues, especially those are really bilateral in context and where other countries have no dog in the dogfight. Global, regional and bilateral approaches to peaceful settlement of issues are not mutually exclusive of each other.

There is a window of opportunity for renewed trust and confidence on both sides. The new Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, and Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, were colleagues when we drafted the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and have broader perceptions of the Philippine dynamics. We have a new ambassador in Beijing.

United States

The “pivot” or “rebalancing” of the United States to Asia is upon us. They come in the form of increased rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines, increased number of exercises and other new activities. The “pivot” is also in Australia and Singapore.

The “pivot” will input on the Visiting Forces Agreement and needs updating, especially the provisions concerning “visiting,” “activities” as understood in the VFA and criminal jurisdiction. It is now time to review and renegotiate the VFA, taking into account our new strategic equation vis-à-vis China and the US and the changed roles of both countries in global security and economic architecture.

Economic diplomacy

The positive indicators of the Philippine economy have been attributed to the country’s economic and financial team. The challenge of the team is to sustain the positive trend of the economy and to search for more ways which will enable the benefits from these “tiger” developments to trickle down to the masses.

The Asean Economic Community (AEC) will be upon us by August 2015. How prepared are we for this important milestone?

Overseas Filipino workers

The protection and promotion of the welfare of overseas Filipino workers remain the strongest pillar of Philippine foreign policy. This is dictated by necessity considering the number of Filipinos scattered in all continents of the world and their contributions to the Philippine economy by their remittances. It is heartwarming to see no less than the Secretary of Foreign Affairs risking life and health concerns to look after them in troubled areas of the world.

What really is our foreign policy

The pillars of our foreign policy are in place. We are and should always be aware of the changing geopolitical environment and realities on which these pillars operate.

We need a diplomacy with a vision which will enable us to act to current international developments and with agility react and adjust as these occur. We need a clear, coherent and aggressive diplomacy and at the same time remember the art and importance of quiet diplomacy. There is no room for “balagtasan” in foreign policy and diplomacy.

We need a Department of Foreign Affairs as an updated institution which can tackle transnational challenges and which will survive the predilections and idiosyncrasies of its incumbents and the vagaries of changing administrations.

Above all, we need a commonsense foreign policy which know what and where our national interests are.

(The author was the Philippine Permanent Representative to the United Nations from May 2003 to February 2007. Prior to that, he was Foreign Affairs Undersecretary for Policy.)

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)

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