Commentaries

Emerging Consistencies in Philippine Foreign Policy Amidst Continuing U.S.-China Frictions

Although critics often point to the apparent discrepancies and unpredictability in Philippine foreign policy as expressed by its chief architect, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, several emerging consistencies can be gathered. In the same vein as other countries that opted not to spell out the specifics of their foreign policy strategy, especially on critical and sensitive issues, in order to have ample room for maneuver and negotiation, these incipient consistencies have yet to be formally articulated in a coherent form, more so applied in reference to a certain foreign policy priority. Although not definitive, an appreciation of some of these nascent consistencies can give one a better outlook of the continuously evolving Philippine diplomacy. Furthermore, beyond his infamous rhetoric which surely played a lot in getting him Times’ 2017 Most Influential Person Award, Duterte’s actions, by and large, resonate as regional responses to the brewing US-China tussle.

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Understanding President Duterte’s ‘Independent Foreign Policy’

Photo from Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office

Article II, section VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” In practice, successive Philippine presidents rarely labeled Philippine foreign policy as “independent,” albeit occasionally mentioning the term as part of their rhetoric.

In a stark departure from his predecessors, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly declared that his administration “will pursue an independent foreign policy.” As to what an “independent foreign policy” means became the subject of various discussions. For their part, senior government officials have provided rather broad principles as to how such a policy would take shape. However, in a televised interview last 3 April 2017, the new Philippine top diplomat to China, Ambassador Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, provided a more detailed account of the elements of Duterte’s independent foreign policy and how it would figure in the broader strategic environment. It is thus far the most thorough explanation of an independent foreign policy to come from a Duterte administration official.

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Philippines-China Relations: A Deepening Partnership

Early in his term as Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte already made clear his penchant for an independent foreign policy. Parenthetically, part of this foreign policy thrust is the desire to have a soft landing in managing differences with China and the strategic recognition of China’s growing geoeconomic profile. This was manifest when Duterte quickly appointed a special envoy to China and made Beijing his first official state visit destination in October of last year. In his visit, Duterte announced that the “spring time” has come about in Sino-Philippine relations.

Since then, there have been three significant positive achievements of both leaderships: the South China Sea (SCS) tensions have de-escalated, the overall bilateral relations have been normalized, and China has become more involved in Philippine domestic and socio-economic agenda. In fact, Duterte’s state visit saw commercial, corporate, public, and people-to-people diplomacy in full swing.

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Yes, We Live in Interesting Times

The assumption of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America creates many new uncertainties for U.S. foreign policy, causing trepidation in many countries in the Asian region. Lack of knowledge in international relations and experience in statecraft by any American leader is a matter of concern for America's friends and foes alike, but to have someone now standing at the helm who has challenged U.S. foreign policy orthodoxies as much as the new president did while on the campaign trail, has many foreign leaders, economic and security planners, and analysts sitting on the edge of their seats. The fact that the previous administration is seen to have presided over its own foreign policy failures does not absolve the new one of responsibility; those failures will rather weigh heavily on its shoulders.

How does one “make America great again,” as promised by the Trump campaign slogan? Indeed, America must be made great again for Americans, before it can be great again for the world. Considering how some of the country's core institutions that used to underpin democracy and prosperity are in such poor condition, one may have to look further and deeper for where new hope may spring.

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