2016 Philippine Presidential Aspirants.

In the run-up to the May presidential elections, candidates will be held to close scrutiny by the thinking members of the electorate. How well have have they thought out the major problems of the country and the potential solutions that can best serve the long-term interests of the Filipino people, instead of the expedient solutions or promises that can merely help get them elected?

Among the myriad issues that will demand attention - perhaps not necessarily the one closest to the needs of Juan dela Cruz but nonetheless of vital strategic importance - is the question of how to handle relations with China. China is a major power with still growing regional and global influence, whether on questions of global financial stability, international security, energy, climate change, and more. It also happens to be a key protagonist and our major adversary in the single most challenging external security concern of the country at present – the territorial and maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea. Thus far, the disputes have not led to armed confrontation, but the trends point toward increased militarization, expansion of occupation and presence, and the hardening of positions of the various states concerned. Finding a political solution based on law and diplomacy will be no easy task. The alternative - not finding one – could be tragic. How will the next president deal with this matter?

On the other hand, managing our relations with the United States and updating the defense alliance in response to a changing regional environment will be equally challenging. This comes at a sensitive crossroads in US history, when it is economically weak, with its internal politics in disarray, and when it is arguably losing its claim to leadership even over some traditional allies and friends. The U.S. remains the most formidable military force on the planet indeed, and it is still believed to be the most credible guarantor of regional stability in our part of the world. But it is grappling with the right approach to simultaneous challenges - including domestic ones, the Islamic State, a resurgent Russia, and an ambitious and assertive China. What role we want the U.S. to play in our own region and with respect to our own national aspirations, is something the next President would do well to consider.

The Philippines is a developing country that now finds itself sandwiched between these two big powers.  Having the twelfth largest population in the world and situated in its most dynamic region, we are by no means a small country. Yet in our foreign policy, we have tended to behave as if we were, looking inward or only a short distance beyond our shores, or where our migrant communities and overseas workers seem to need government help. We have also tended to rely too much on partners and allies to do the heavy lifting for us.

The Philippine Presidency in fact has a very powerful role in shaping the contours of Philippine diplomacy. Often referred to as the Chief Architect of foreign relations, a Philippine president can redefine priorities, dictate the tone and posture, and even personally manage diplomacy with selected countries if he so wishes, subject to some structural constraints. Such constraints include the Constitution, treaties that our previous governments have committed to, and obligations under international law. The biggest constraint of all, however, is the lack of power and wealth the Philippines is faced with relative to other members of the international community, as these can determine how much influence we can actually wield, or not.

Even if we have faith in international norms, principles, and legal institutions, or in being on the side of “right” against “might”, and even if there are allies and other countries with whom some of our interests may converge, ultimately the Filipino nation - like any other - is left to fend for itself. It must defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, mitigate threats from outside our borders, and ensure an external environment that allows us to prosper and our best values and beliefs (i.e. our identity as a people) to thrive. And the highest responsibilty for that sits with the President.

Moreover, the President as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces holds that most hallowed and grave authority (albeit needing concurrence by the Congress) to determine when and why Filipinos must go to war. This is notwithstanding the fact that in our Constitution, the people have renounced the use of war as an instrument of national policy.

Both by law and tradition and because of our political culture, the Philippine President enjoys much leeway to put his or her personal stamp on the nation’s foreign policy. We can speak, for instance, of a Marcos foreign policy, a Ramos foreign policy, a Macapagal-Arroyo foreign policy, and even an Aquino III foreign policy. However, when one tries to conceptualize and explain “Philippine foreign policy” (other than in the broadest generalities such as the much-touted “three pillars” of national security, economic diplomacy and assistance to nationals), many of us will draw a blank. In fact, one feature of our foreign policy across presidencies has been lack of consistency and continuity, which does not help build confidence in government whether among our own people, our allies or adversaries.

In practice, we have also seen the downside of having presidents who lacked an understanding of statecraft, and we have been in situations where the institutions or individuals tasked with foreign policy management (the Cabinet, DFA, DND, among others) lacked the capability, the courage or the élan to step up and provide vision or leadership when presidents failed to do so. In such instances, we end up with a foreign policy of “muddling through”. This is something we can no longer afford to do.

By no means do we expect our presidents to be great statesmen in the likes of Zhou Enlai, Gandhi and Mandela. However, we do deserve leaders who will know how to interact with other leaders and governments in order to serve the best interests of the nation, without getting us deeper into conflict or injecting major uncertainties into already complex regional relations. Who among the candidates for the highest office can best understand how challenging this is?