“There is no ifs and buts. It is ours. But we have been acting along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today.” This statement in President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month reflects his policy toward Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That position has remained fairly consistent since coming to power in 2016. As he sets out to visit Beijing for the fifth time this month, maritime issues will once again be high on the agenda.

Conflict avoidance and protection of the country’s waters and marine resources constitute Duterte’s fundamental priorities in the South China Sea and he sees peaceful dialogue as the best way to achieve them. He has argued, “More and better results can be reached in the privacy of a conference room than in a squabble in public.” But high public mistrust of China and perceived weak handling of sea incidents have raised demands for transparency or oversight in the conduct of such talks. This should, however, be balanced by a respect for the very real sensitivities attached to diplomatic negotiations, especially over a decades-old territorial and maritime row.

Photo Source: South China Morning Post

A recent strategic dialogue between security sector experts and practitioners in the Philippines and Australia discussed prospects and sobering realities for cooperation and conflict-prevention amid great power rivalry. Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson’s keynote speech neatly summed up stark facts facing the Indo-Pacific: (a) geopolitical adjustments stemming from China’s rise, and (b) US policy mood that has shifted from engagement to strategic competition. 

The problem however lies in how we make sense of these realities. It has become popular for smaller powers to pursue “strategic autonomy”: non-aligned, cordial relations with both US and China pursued at the national level. However, I argue that strategic autonomy conceived as such is insufficient and leads to international bystanderism that makes the region susceptible to fallout from great power rivalry. Strategic autonomy may be better complemented by proactive brokerage by middle powers, clear articulation of common interests, and a degree of international coordination of national balancing strategies where possible. Discussions from the 2019 Philippines-Australia Dialogue are instructive in this regard.

Partnership building offers the most pragmatic solution to the Philippines ever-increasing demand for resiliency in the cyber domain. It embraces cross-sectoral and cross-border collaboration in breaking down barriers to devise innovative cybersecurity approaches.

Photo Source: Pexels

On May 13, 2019, more than 60 million Filipinos went to the polls for the country’s midterm elections. In this particular ballot exercise, voters elected half of the nationally-elected Senate as well as district and party-list legislative representatives, and local government officials.

President Duterte himself is not subjected to this electoral contest as he is given a single six-year term without re-election until 2022. It has been however a widely-shared shared belief that a midterm election serves as an informal referendum on the president. This becomes more salient given Duterte’s sustained popularity ratings despite his deeply polarising policies and his administration firm control over the republic’s political institutions.

It has been three years since the firebrand leader became Philippine president with the promise to embark on widespread and systemic change. Though there have been some changes put in place, there is also the perception that most things have remained the same. Judging by the conduct of the 2019 electoral campaign and its outcomes, one can surmise that Philippine politics was in “business-as-usual” mode defined by patronage, clientelism, and traditional politics.