For a strategic, coherent Philippine foreign policy

my Trade Tripper column in this 28-29 May 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

For foreign policy, perhaps it’s time for a reset. And resets need a plan. And plans involve a consideration of where one is and going to. That is why international relations fundamentally should be conducted in complete unity with the identity and values of the Philippines.

Or put another way, our foreign policy should be but the mere extension of our domestic, also recognizing that these are matters strategically, patiently, and deliberately played out in decades, and that there is more to foreign relations than just facilitating the documentation and regulation of our overseas workers.

For a start, this means a healthy regard for the rule of law. This is particularly true as we are pushing that principle in relation to China and the West Philippine Sea. If extra-judicial measures are resorted to, even de facto, as domestic policy, we can’t reasonably expect the Chinese to do the same.

It also means respecting human rights, particularly freedom of expression and religion. Considerably so, when there’s around 2.5 million of our countrymen abroad who we do not want discriminated against for being Filipinos (or acting or speaking or believing as they do).

This includes not raising the issue of the death penalty at this time, with about 80 Filipinos on death row overseas. It’s simply incongruous to request clemency for fellow Filipinos when we are putting them to death ourselves.

Going back to China, the incoming administration’s declared policy of reaching out and focusing on the positives of our relationship with it is the correct step.

Discussions and agreements should be hashed out allowing for mutual exploration and use of the disputed areas and resources, without necessarily prejudicing sovereignty claims at a more opportune future time.

Enhanced trade arrangements should be raised, particularly with the Philippines supporting and joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement led by China. Along with the Silk Road aspirations of the latter.

Preferably, all that be at least initiated before the Hague arbitral tribunal releases its decision in our case against China.

As for Mindanao and the ongoing Bangsamoro issue, one fundamental change that should definitely be done is to overtly and declaratively categorize the same as a domestic matter. This includes having the Department of the Interior and Local Government leading negotiations from now on.

Further on that: revival of the BIMP-EAGA is a definite priority, along with a viable transport system among the trading countries. Long-term investment and tax incentives should be given, encouraging Filipino businesses from all over the country and overseas to set up in the area.

We need to strengthen our relationship with Russia. Trade between our two countries hovers around $1 billion, with around 4,500 overseas Filipinos working there (mostly in Moscow). Even adding tourism in, the economic aspect of the relationship is quite anemic considering that we are the closest tropical country to Russia (at least its eastern part) and pales in comparison with other APEC countries (of which Russia is a part of).

Nevertheless, the Philippines and Russia have always been generally in good terms: the former being the first democratic country to reach out to the then Soviet Union during the Cold War (the effort led by then Executive Secretary Alex Melchor and then Major Joe Almonte). In 2012, Russian naval vessels made a goodwill visit to the Philippines, signifying the potential for a deepening of relations between the two countries.

Also suggested are acquiring defense pacts with our longtime trading partners: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea.

The Philippines and Australia already have a working arrangement on protection of our transport systems; we have an understanding with Japan on maritime security; and our military history with South Korea peaked with the 1950’s Philippine Expeditionary Forces to Korea.

Incoming president Duterte did well to reiterate the strong relationship the Philippines has with the United States. The shared political and cultural values are too embedded for us not to do so.

Though we should definitely join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, we must also encourage the US to commit itself to leading a revived multilateral trading arrangement through the World Trade Organization.

Furthermore, we should also realize that historically and geographically, we have the potential to play a significant role similar to that of Great Britain vis-à-vis the US and Europe. Perhaps more so.

Our location in the Pacific is not only strategic but also freed us from the various intra-continental conflicts between Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. This makes us not only the perfect conduit for the US towards Asia but also a pragmatically objective mediator for our neighbors.

Finally, even in diplomacy, talk is futile unless one has the muscle and will to back it up. Our foreign policy must be partnered with a strong, robust military.

Indeed, increasing defense spending and reviving mandatory military service for all college-age students is ironically a good first step towards a coherent, strategic foreign policy.