The 2022 Presidential Campaign Season has begun, Part 3
“Domestic policy can only defeat us; foreign policy can kill us.” – John F. Kennedy, 35th U.S. President
Foreign policy is one big area to wade into for those aspiring to become president. It is a general term that captures many things external to the country but could have a significant impact on the domestic scene. Think about relationships with neighbors. More advanced democracies tend to have bigger foreign policy scopes to protect their national interest but their national interest may jeopardize your own country’s national interest.
Geography is a main consideration for shaping one’s foreign policy while employing various tools such as diplomacy, entering into military and trade alliances to manifest a policy direction. The Philippines is a country composed of over 7,000 islands in between two big oceans and the Sulawesi Seas in the south. Hence, there are major geopolitical considerations when crafting an independent foreign policy.
The big picture politics for a Philippine president will involve relations with countries that comprises the ASEAN and western democracies that extend their reach beyond their shores. Think of the South China Sea (SCS) situation for example. Many ASEAN members have overlapping claims in various islands in the SCS with China overtly trying to have them all. For most of them, they try to maintain a friendly neighborhood. But such desires are often complicated by foreign policy decisions that often result in discord.
Major geopolitical factors for the Philippines involve historical contexts involving Japan, China, and the United States – countries with imperialistic leanings. Pacts and agreements were born because of such historical contexts. Taken together, a Philippine president needs to maintain a favorable balance while pursuing relations driven (or hampered) by national interest considerations and constitutional mandates.
Recent events in the foreign policy arena exposed VP Leni Robredo’s weaknesses. First, the issue of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the United States and the Philippines. This issue really goes back initially to last year’s VFA abrogation call by Duterte. Robredo opines that Duterte cannot unilaterally abrogate the agreement. Well, Duterte did exactly that, served notice but the Americans did not respond and are waiting instead, for the other shoe to drop.
Robredo likened Duterte’s recent comments for the Americans to pay up, if they want the VFA to stay, as akin to a criminal act of extortion. In both instances, Robredo being a lawyer much like the president, appears to be lawyering for the retention of the VFA and for the Americans’ legal protection for its visiting forces.
Her contrary stand to the spirit of the 1987 Constitution (Art. II, Section 7) baffles the mind since the president is cloaked with such power in pursuit of an independent foreign policy, and that includes repudiating agreements such as the VFA, in furtherance of a foreign policy direction. Instead, she should think like a president because she could be in Malacañang one day, asserting executive privilege while awkwardly having to defend Duterte’s defense of such privilege.
The South China Sea (SCS) issue is at the heart of everything Robredo opposes relating to China. This is in line with former president Benigno Aquino III’s stance to fight China in this matter and use the UNCLOS ruling as the badge to show disdain towards China. Furthermore, the mantra seems to be to fight China in every turn even to the point of military confrontation unless China recognizes the ruling.
Being adept in the concept of foreign policy arena requires an understanding of the awesome power of the presidency and related historical contexts. A good starting point is the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signed in 1951 that the Philippine senate ratified but not reciprocated by the U.S.
The MDT was a diplomatic cover to justify the Military Bases Agreement (MBA) signed in 1947 that guaranteed American presence in the country for 99 years. The bases, collectively, was purposely a deterrent at thwarting future expansionist moves by Imperial Japan but clearly, not China. It was also a condition for granting independence to the Philippines in 1944 due to the Philippines’ lack of military capability.
The bases agreement was heavily tilted in favor of the United States having been granted extraterritorial jurisdiction rights. Plainly, the Philippines was granted independence but not for the next 100 years, the agreement was in force.
In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law because of “heightened” insurgency and ruled by decree for nearly two decades. He then captured the revolutionary head of the New People’s Army, Jose Maria Sison. All five American presidents propped Marcos during his tenure from 1965-1985 to protect the U.S military bases in the Philippines. Dutifully, Marcos identified himself closely to the Americans, even sending a civic action group (PHILCAG) to Vietnam in support of the U.S. war.
But as a smart lawyer, Marcos exploited the fact that the MBA and the MDT were prejudicial to Philippine sovereignty and not worth the paper it was signed on. Marcos cut short the basing agreement in 1966 with a caveat, to have it renegotiated in 1991. Days before the 1986 People Power revolution, Marcos sensed that the Americans were giving him cold shoulders after the presidential election against Cory Aquino. He demanded from the Reagan administration to renegotiate the basing agreement sooner (to favor America once more) and not wait until 1991. Days later, U.S. Air Force jets flew over the metropolis that exiled Marcos to Hawaii.
Cory Aquino became the revolutionary president then appointed the Constitutional Convention delegates that created the post-Marcos 1987 Constitution. She kept the base’s agreement in return and campaigned for its renewal in 1991. Her negotiators demanded for a much bigger “rent” (in billions of dollars) in exchange for a 10 year extension but got a paltry counter offer. It wasn’t “extortion” then. The new basing agreement was defeated and sent the Americans packing.
President Cory Aquino was humiliated. But the Magnificent 12’s (senators who voted no) stand was really in accord with the new direction espoused in the 1987 Cory Constitution – total independence from the United States and the pursuit of peace in the Asian neighborhood. Aquino’s quest for peace led to the release of political prisoners in the altar of human rights that included Joma Sison but earned her multiple coup attempts from mutinous soldiers.
While the U.S. was making an exit in 1992, China, in true Mao Zedong’s thinking “to retreat when the enemy advances, but pursue where the enemy retreats”; encroached into Philippine sovereign areas in the South China Sea and declared that all of the SCS part of its territorial waters. That was the beginning of what would later become the Philippines’ biggest nightmare: China’s military expansions in the SCS. (To be continued ..)