Dominating the news in recent days is a provision inserted in the United States’ 2020 Budget to ban the jailers of Philippine Sen. Leila De Lima who has spent her last three Christmases incarcerated. The provision gave the authority to President Donald Trump’s Executive Branch to look into the De Lima case and determine if there are information regarding the culpability of De Lima jailers and denying them entry to the U.S. The ban also included those involved in the extra judicial killings (EJK) attendant to Duterte’s war on drugs.
Social media went into overdrive with some even mentioning that this ban included the president because of the language of the provision. Malacañang through its spokesman and the Foreign Secretary decried the ban as a breach of foreign policy dictum of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states of the Free World. Politicians from both parties had partisan takes on the matter.
Let us set aside the political question of whether De Lima’s prosecution is politically motivated and focus instead on the reality of the ban and how it might affect diplomatic relations between the two countries.
First, on the ban itself. Although initiated by democrats, the ban enjoys bipartisan support. This ban is really a continuation of what the U.S. Senate did back in April of 2019 targeting human rights violators’ EJK involvement in the course of the war on drugs. The proviso meant that in addition to banning their entries, the Global Magnitsky Act also requires that their American assets be frozen.
So, two things. If the Secretary of State (Mike Pompeo) finds credible information (which most likely he won’t) linking any Philippine government official to either De Lima’s or cases of EJK, then they will be denied entry but not prosecuted. Think of the Marcoses who were placed in a similar list of human rights violators since the late 1980’s. None of the Marcoses tried to travel there even when Imelda was being tried in New York City for racketeering. Their ill-gotten assets in the U.S. were frozen but they were never arrested because the Marcoses stayed away.
Despite all the partisan noises, both countries can’t afford to sacrifice foreign policy relations to carry out the “sense of the U.S. Senate.” This is especially true and complicated by the Philippine Supreme Court ruling on the validity of De Lima’s arrest and continued incarceration. There will be a lot of posturing but in the end, this is one of those things that politicians do to please certain constituencies.
The Philippines will need the United States for many other things like foreign aid, military support, trade, and recognition. Hence, despite the fiery rhetoric of the president and his subalterns, Philippines will continue to have diplomatic relations with the United States. Besides, think of what Duterte will do if one of his alter egos is turned around in Hawaii, Los Angeles or other port of entries. Guaranteed that he will turn around and send home one of the US diplomats at the embassy.
For America, the huge petroleum reserve under the South China Sea is a legitimate national interest because if it falls in the wrong hands (like the Chinese), it could mean tilting the war in their favor. Oil is a weapon of war and that is why the US Navy will continue to patrol the South China Sea to deny them that opportunity. If there is a shooting war between warring countries, even by mistake or accident, the United States will not automatically rain missiles on Chinese structures on the South China Sea. There will be mediation to lower the temperature and prevent the escalation of war.
Freedom of navigation is also a national interest for the United States because of the oil tankers that passes through this area from the Middle East to destinations like South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan.
So the US will not take sides in the ongoing dispute between certain ASEAN countries regarding these disputes. The dilemma, however, is when the Philippines willingly gives away the oil to the Chinese through a joint venture agreement or some other means that legitimizes the harvesting of such product by the Chinese. This is why the United States will need to keep a close tab on the Duterte administration, not to piss them off greatly – like an aggressive implementation of the ban.
One of the Philippine foreign policy cornerstone is national security. National security involves internal and external threats like the communist insurgency in the country and combatting terrorism particularly in Mindanao where Islamic militancy has rooted particularly those ISIS inspired. Both of these areas happen to dovetail with America’s foreign policy priorities.
In practice, it means the annual Balikatan exercises, transfer of military hardware whether directly from the U.S. arsenal or through its allies. It also means training opportunities for pilots to train in Pensacola, Florida; masteral programs through the War College, or Special Forces training through Quantico, Fort Benning or even with the Federal Bureau of Investigation with their anti-terror tactical training.
America also has a huge interest in public health that it will continue working with the Philippines to identify, monitor, and find vaccines for endemic diseases that can have global impacts like dengue, measles, and influenza, among others. Global travel can easily spread these diseases. Same is true with humanitarian aid after natural calamities.
The second pillar of the Philippine national security thrust is economic stability. This is done through bilateral trade and loans or grants through the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that Western democracies manage, Asian Development Bank, and lately, Duterte has obtained Chinese loans through the Silk and Road Initiative.
The Philippines can also obtain direct grants through the Millennium Challenge or European aid money but these comes with demands that Duterte is loath to receive. As a matter of fact, he foolishly turned down some of these funding because of his lack of insight into the value of such programs. Some of these funding involves focused areas like lowering maternal deaths, increasing breastfeeding rates, or poverty alleviation.
And lastly, political and cultural relations with the world. This is where the Philippines will need top notch diplomats in the molds of Carlos P. Romulo, Raul Manglapus, among others. Unlike the current foul-mouthed foreign secretary, the top diplomat’s job is to not only parrot your bosses’ childish desires but espouse what is best for the country.
The special relations with the United States, for example, is not “a mere artificial creation of government policy-makers and it is not dictated exclusively by the accident of common purposes. It is the product of experience in serving the national interest,” as Ramon Magsaysay poignantly expressed in 1956.
The famous American President John F. Kennedy once said, “Domestic policy can only defeat us; (but) foreign policy can kill us.” That is the essence of foreign policy but as Madeleine Albright succinctly puts it, “People are finding it harder and harder to relate to foreign policy.”