May 092017



By Roland G. Simbulan

University of the Philippines


(Address before The Wednesday Forum, United Church of Christ of the Philippines (UCCP), Cosmopolitan Church, Taft Avenue, Manila. January 18, 2017.)




Foreign policy is the most powerful instrument for a government determined to develop and secure its territory.  Both our domestic and external policies should just have one consistent, unified objective: to reclaim full Philippine control of its natural and human resources, finances, economic activities, the state, etc. so that we, as Filipinos, can determine our path to development that shall benefit the greatest number of our people. For a long time already, many Philippine administrations bowed to the impositions of foreign interests and governments and multi-lateral institutions which wreaked havoc to our national economy and has only brought further inequality and poverty to this country.


Today, the foundation for an independent foreign policy is in fact enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution, and is rightly, founded on the principles of peace, self-determination, absence of foreign intervention, demilitarization and denuclearization.


The 1987 Constitution is clear about our foreign policy. The general direction of our foreign policy is stated in Article II, Section 2, 7, 8 and 19:


“Section 2. The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land, and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation and amity with all nations.”


” Section 7. The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interests, and the right to self- determination.”


” Section 8. The Philippines, consistent with the national interest, adopts and pursues a policy of freedom from nuclear weapons in its territory.”


“Section 19. The State shall develop a self-reliant and independent national economy effectively controlled by Filipinos.”


These are very clear constitutional directives. They are not hyperboles.


For the past months, and years, we have had territorial and maritime disputes in the South China Sea with an Asian neighbor China, the world’s second largest economy.


Like China, we are an Asian country, which are both rich in natural resources. But compared to China we are just a small country, and an archipelagic country endowed with rich resources, being the object of big powers fighting each other in order to gain control of our land and its natural wealth. We have been under the Spanish empire as a colony for almost four centuries. The Dutch, and the British wanted to oust the Spaniards and incorporate us in their own empires.

Then came the Americans who offered to help our Revolutionary fathers in freeing us from the Spanish yoke, only to betray the proffered “friendship”, fought our Revolutionary Army for Independence, and annexed us to the emerging American Empire. General Gregorio del Pilar, in whose honor Fort del Pilar, home of the Philippine Military Academy in Baguio City was named, fought and died fighting the new American colonialists, perhaps the first U.S. Visiting Forces in this part of the world. The first U.S. “visiting forces” – 126,000 U.S. troops according to American historians– invaded and defeated our Army of the First Republic of the Philippines led by General Emilio Aguinaldo.


Today, we are still the “bone of contention” of Big Powers, by the United States, by Japan and China, an emerging world power challenging U.S. hegemony in this part of the world.


There are many dimensions to the South China Sea issue, but again most important to understand is to see it first of all through the security prism of the various stakeholder countries. For the U.S., the Philippines and Japan, altering the U.S.-dominated status quo in the South China Sea threatens their conservative perception of “national security”. For China, NOT altering the status quo will potentially threaten China’s security in terms of its trading routes and key arteries for its supplies of energy and raw materials, as these will always be at the mercy of the ballistic submarines of the U.S. Navy. U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific region today is best manifested in the continuing U.S. policy of containment with its global empire of nearly 800 overseas military bases excluding secret bases surrounding China and Russia.

These US bases are legalized by bilateral, regional and multilateral military alliances and are buttressed by the U.S. main instrument of power projection and intervention: the 11 aircraft carrier strike groups,  U.S. special operations forces deployed in 138 nations and at least 60 drone bases overseas capable not only of surveillance but also to conduct lethal strike capabilities in any part of the world.


For the long future, there can only be more competition by big powers for resources and the question is whether it can be kept peaceful.  We know that the great powers of the past achieved their aims through direct colonialism, wars of conquest, and inter-imperialist wars. China has propounded “peaceful development”, or “peaceful rise”, and “new type of great-power relationship”-to use their words- precisely because, subjectively, it wants to avoid the old pattern of great-power conflicts and wars.  To this day, unlike U.S. and NATO, China’s diplomacy has tended to avoid overseas military conflicts or military intervention in other countries, and engages mostly in economic competition, using its accumulated financial clout to successfully win its bids for mining concessions in Afghanistan, or oil contracts in Iraq, for example.  China’s leaders are certainly aware of the costly lessons of colonialism and wars, of which China itself is a victim.  Hopefully, China can exercise more effective leadership so that its army of corporations and entrepreneurs expanding overseas will be guided by best practices (though there have been complaints in Africa as well as in the Philippines, as in the tainted NBN-ZTE contract during the former Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s administration).


Overall, the entry of China into the global market for resources is good for the resources-owning countries. China’s dependence on economic competition and not on military muscle is good for peaceful global competition.  Whether other great-powers will allow China to rise peacefully or to control a greater share of the world’s resources, is something China alone cannot answer. The laws of international politics exist, and China itself will continue to build its national defense to redress the military imbalance with other powers and protect its economic lifelines when the need arises. That China itself was long a victim of Western imperialism and never, even at the height of its power in the past, engaged in territorial conquest beyond its historical domain, seems to provide a basis for optimism, but we can never really tell, because any government or party can change its color. The lesson of the first socialist state, the Soviet Union, bears this out.


China’s Interest in the South China Sea


The South China Sea has oil and other resources, which are certainly important, but even more important is that it is a strategic zone of defense for China.  China’s military planners will not lightly give it up.  By and large, China is maintaining the status quo. They have the superior force to take over the disputed islets if they want to, while in the case of Scarborough Shoal, they probably believe we were the disruptive “revisionist” force with our first use of a military vessel to intimidate their fishermen. But they will maintain their sovereignty claims because they are important legal and political grounds for opposing the use of the sea lanes “within their jurisdiction” (within their Exclusive Economic Zone) for military threats against China. They support freedom of navigation but I think they want a say on military passage through their “claimed” seas — the Hainan spy plane incident and subsequent skirmishes with U.S. Navy ships approaching sensitive Chinese areas need to be reviewed.


China’s strategy of handling disputes with the Philippines will be a function of its overall strategy of dealing with the United States.  China is already suspicious that the disputes with the Philippines have heated up simultaneous with the U.S. pivot in Asia. But in handling the Philippines, China will strike a balance between not unnecessarily provoking the U.S. , but also trying to send a firm message to the U.S..  This reminds me of the example of Netherland’s sale of a submarine to Taiwan, which led China to severing of diplomatic relations with the Netherlands –I think relations were downgraded because of this.  But a more massive U.S. arms sale to Taiwan did not provoke a similar retaliation.  The point here is that China is capable of “teaching a lesson” to a lesser power as a way of transmitting their message to the master, the U.S., without provoking the U.S., that it might be in our interest to avoid being in a position of such a “lesser power.”


Engaging China on our Territorial and Maritime Disputes


There is increasing perception in the Philippines that China’s unilateral claim in Southeast Asia through its the 9 dash line covering the Spratlys, Baja de Masinloc, Ayungin, and reclamation activities which has now been rejected by the UNCLOS Hague Arbitration Tribunal are all manifestations of China’s big power aggression. Some say it is establishing its own hegemonic “sphere of influence” especially among its immediate neighbors in Southeast Asia.  Provocation breeds counter provocation. There is the U.S. Asia Pivot, and Japan is also reacting because its major trade routes for its vital imports such as oil and gas are on the Sea Lanes in the South China Sea. China is flexing its muscles through what is perceived as aggressive behavior in the South East Asian waters and in the Pacific, which may be a prelude to future confrontation and conflicts.


The South China Sea being, above all, a security issue, China will react to Philippine actuations according to whether they threaten or enhance its security.  China had increasing perception that the Philippines is actively aligned with the U.S. and Japan to confront China militarily, enhanced by the U.S.’ Asian pivot?


Foreign Relations and our National Interest


Now, where should we stand in these big-power quarrels?  We must, in accordance to our 1987 Constitution, defend our sovereignty and territorial integrity from all big powers seeking hegemony and control over the West Philippine Sea (U.S. , China and Japan).  We have the following options:


  1. Being a junior partner/follower of one of the competing powers will make our country a possible target of attack in a future conflict;


  1. We can embark on an independent, patriotic posture. This means not allowing ourselves to be employed or used as a pawn in this big power struggle for resources in the region.


Our country is small compared to the U.S. and China, but we also have strong points. China and the U.S. are economically and militarily strong but they also have their weak points.  Our strongest point is the God-given gift that we are strategically located in the region embraced on the western side by the South China Sea.


How then, should we take advantage and not squander our strong point? I argue that the best answer is an INDEPENDENT FOREIGN POLICY, a policy that swears friendship to all and enmity to none, a policy that gives primacy to our national interests independent of the conflict between Big Powers, a policy that above all, refocuses our effort on the most urgent issue, which is accelerated economic growth, on which all other sources of national strength depend. Our Southeast Asian neighbors — Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, etc., though some of them also have territorial and maritime disputes with China, are focusing on economic growth and have good experience in this regard. But we can do better.


I know that the Chinese are trying to win us over to their side in their strategic competition, struggle and quarrel with the United States for a dominant position in the world.  But, let us ask, why have we already surrendered our sovereignty to the other dominant big power, which supplies and arms us with already obsolete ships and aircraft – instead of state of the art for our external defense capability – to ostensibly “modernize” our armed forces?


But we must assert and assert our sovereign rights and our independence, not a witting or unwitting pawn of either Big Power.  We can study well and learn from the experience of our smaller neighbor, Vietnam, in dealing both with China and the Soviet Union who were at odds with each other, to gain and to uphold their country’s independence and higher interests. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam, with whom China shares land borders, taught China and all big power bullies a lesson. That smallness in size of economic and military strength is not necessarily an invitation to being pushed around.  We must develop and have our own capability to defend what is ours.


The ideal strategic goal is for the Philippines to enjoy the friendship of the U.S., Japan and China and not be a pawn in their inevitable conflicts.  If China can be made to realize that we mean genuine friendship, that our relations with the U.S., Japan or other powers are not directed against China, then the conditions will be improved for the eventual resolution of our disputes.  For China’s leaders, the most important starting point is strategic trust and friendship.  Once that is established, the nitty-gritty of legal, technical, and other detailed negotiations will eventually fall into place.


For especially with a “good neighbor” policy with China, we will have to deal with it in trade negotiations, economic negotiations, and in other bilateral relations that will lead to shared prosperity in the region. The potential for cooperation is still there now under the new administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, and it should grow.


For the Philippines, bilateral talks will produce urgently needed economic boosts without giving up on sovereign or maritime claims that will no doubt take time to resolve (i.e. Vietnam-China took 30 years to sort out land border disputes, China-Russia took 40 years). Highly productive economic engagements will help bridge our domestic public opinions and build the mutual trust necessary for the final resolution of disputes.


For China, bilateral talks will enhance their security because negotiations will immediately lower the political temperature, reduce the level of threat, and maybe reduce the rationale for the U.S. military pivot, the U.S. military presence in the Philippines and even the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement or EDCA which is easier to scrap because it is a mere Executive Agreement that was never ratified by the Philippine Senate.


The time for real diplomacy and direct negotiation has indeed arrived, with the recent high level state visit of Philippine president Duterte to China last Oct. 18-21, 2016. The Duterte administration is most qualified to handle the job in a manner that has prevented escalation of the dispute into war.


All signals point to early economic harvests for the Philippines as a result of the recent Duterte state visit. A bilateral commission can immediately negotiate/launch provisional joint development projects. Another bilateral commission can handle maritime disputes. All these are now possible.


The discussion of provisional arrangements of economic cooperation is good while more ticklish issues can be resolved later. Talks can start with concrete development projects in immediate time frames pending the final resolution of disputes and without prejudice to our sovereign rights  or national interests.


The Hague ruling is both a challenge and an opportunity, but it will also  test of our maturity as a nation, and that if we handle the challenge well with a sense of urgency, we will achieve a situation where the Philippines enjoys good relations with China, while maintaining traditional and close friendship with the U.S., Japan and other partners. What president Duterte is really breaking is the unequal Philippine-U.S. relations, it does not mean severing ties, but in fact, improving relations through mutuality and more respect with traditional allies. We will improve terms in agreements so that we really benefit and have more advantages and reciprocity. To break the pattern of what I call shameless negotiated subservience! This message is not just for the U.S. , but for China as well.


The ideal strategic goal is for the Philippines to enjoy the friendship of the United States and China and not be a pawn in their inevitable conflicts.  If China can be made to realize that we mean genuine friendship, that our relations with the United States and Japan are not directed against China, then the conditions will be improved for the eventual resolution in our disputes.  Even China’s foreign policy scholars in their think tanks realize that if China continues to take a very hard line position with the Philippines on the South China Sea issue, it will only push the Philippines further to the United States which will complete the transformation of the Philippines into an American aircraft carrier directed against China under EDCA.


Our vision for the Philippines is to become a respected independent nation in the region, politically and economically, but if we play by the old rules of alliances and confrontation, then the opportunity will be lost, and no benefit in terms of genuine security nor economic prosperity will be gained.



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