Four months after being sworn into office, President Rodrigo Duterte has been dealing with various matters on his hands, ranging from the campaign against illegal drugs to meeting with foreign dignitaries, among others. Part of his key responsibilities as the president is setting and directing the country’s foreign policy.
Following his return from Laos for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit, Duterte recently expressed that the Philippines will pursue an “independent foreign policy,” emphasizing “sovereignty, sovereign equality, non-interference, and peaceful settlement of disputes.”
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) clarified in a separate statement that an independent foreign policy is characterized by a balance among the Philippine’s foreign relations. According to DFA Spokesperson Charles Jose, an independent foreign policy will mean that the country will not be constrained to “outside pressure and interference.”
What’s new, what’s not
Dr. Joseph Anthony Reyes from the Political Science Department agrees that both DFA Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. and Duterte’s press statements on the pursuit of independent foreign policy are “essentially the same.”
“It’s not what they said, but how it was said,” Dr. Reyes remarks, referring to the attention the statement got from the media and public. According to him, all independent states exercising such a foreign policy can be traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia signed in 1648. This treaty places emphasis on a state’s sovereign right to independence.
“There is nothing new [about the statements.] It is common knowledge that in the end, national sovereignty and national interest shall prevail. It is a de facto,” explains Dr. Reyes. All modern states are accorded with an independent foreign policy because this is a feature of the post-Westphalian system.
He clarifies that the government’s pursuit of independent foreign policy, which seeks sovereign equality among nations, only works in theory. In reality, having such policy is “not always the case in practice” due to certain relational imbalances or power relationships.
“[States] may operate in the same game but because of certain power relationships hindi pantay-pantay yan. Siyempre pag malaki ka, mas malakas ka, mas mayaman ka, as opposed to smaller states. Mas malaki kang impluwensiya, mas marami kang resources,” he describes.
On the opposite end, Dr. Antonio Contreras from the same department has a varying take on the statement, describing the government’s statements as “something new” and should be “given serious consideration.” He explains that because the country has always been perceived as an ally of the United States, the pursuit of independence from other countries is new to the international community.
Meanwhile, for Dr. Elaine Tolentino of the International Relations Department, an independent foreign policy would result in the Philippines having less influence from bigger states such as the United States of America. However, she argues that we still have to consider the territorial disputes with China, and contends that the “U.S. needs the Philippines as much as the Philippines needs the U.S.”
Looking back at the previous administration’s foreign policy agenda, Dr. Tolentino characterizes former President Benigno Aquino as “more aggressive” through means of bringing China to international court and by making sure that the United States is on the side of the Philippines. Dr. Contreras, on the other hand, sees the Duterte administration as having “bolder statements” as compared to its predecessor.
When controversy strikes
Prior to this, the president made rounds in local and international headlines for his comments about the United States and the United Nations (UN) after the two criticized the government’s war on drugs. Recently, Duterte unleashed profanities against the European Union for condemning his war on drugs campaign, particularly the spate of killings in different parts of the country.
In one of his press conferences, Duterte responded to criticisms by mentioning the killings of African-Americans by American police officers. For Dr. Reyes, there was a problem in the way the President delivered his response, stating that it sounded more like an attack to the person or ad hominem—a logical fallacy.
Furthermore, Dr. Reyes describes, “For this case, it was an appeal to hypocrisy. Or sadder even still, tu quoque or you too—‘kayo may problema rin kayo.’ Mayroon din kayo mga human rights violations, may police violence, may brutality.” These arguments, he believes, will not be accepted by a more discerning international audience as readily as Duterte’s local supporters.
On the influence of Duterte’s recent statements to the Philippines’ foreign relations, Dr. Contreras believes that international relations are more contingent on long-term strategic interests above others. “While statements of leaders should be heard, long-term relationships between countries rest more on long-term interests than on the utterances and behavior of their leaders,” he expounds.
The future of PH’s foreign relations
Drawing from speculations that the Philippines will leave the UN, Dr. Contreras clarifies that the Philippines will remain a member of the UN in spite of the Philippines getting more attention from the international community. He further emphasizes the notion of long-term strategic interests as a key figure in international relations.
Dr. Reyes sees that many Filipinos are satisfied with the pursuit of such policy. However, this satisfaction will only live up in a short time and is limited to the numbers of Filipinos who “are not familiar with the aspects of foreign policy and international relations,” he adds.
With the uncertainty brought about by the current government’s approach to foreign policy, the Philippines’ standing in the international setting remains to be seen. Although it has been expressed multiple times that the president is simply being himself as shown by his misconduct in social media, Filipinos need to understand the meaning behind his words, and analyze their implications to the country in the long run.