I liked the recent ASEAN summit. It gave us a horrendous traffic jam last Saturday and then rewarded us several days of hardly any traffic. Of course, I know it was also because there was no work and no classes. But the ease of traffic was just so wonderful, even compared to Sundays when there are also no work and no classes. I was told that people who could afford left the metropolis for fear of traffic gridlocks and jammed Baguio City instead, among others. I wonder if there is a lesson somewhere here for us, at least if we want less traffic in our streets.
Beyond the impact on traffic for Metro Manila, one day very bad versus several days very good, I loved our country playing host to ASEAN plus world leaders like Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Trudeau, Shinzo Abe and Moon Jae-in. Yes, Donald Trump is a controversy in his country but our President Rodrigo Duterte is no slouch himself in the controversy department. The two hit it off well for very personal reasons but this has a large impact on our institutional relationship as well. American economic and military might is crucial for the Philippines. There may be some Filipinos whose particular sense of nationalism may lead them to believe that the Philippines ought to be truly independent of America. I have some sympathy for their sentiment but I have a lot of common sense to contend with, too.
The world is not getting any smaller in size but it is getting more intimate in its connectedness. The net effect is that it seems the world is not only an international space, it is also like a village with personal relationships. That is why I like gatherings like the ASEAN and the APEC just before it. I really love seeing leaders of nations seated together and having discussions and private meetings with each other. When leaders meet and personally relate, the risks of conflict and violence drop dramatically. I saw the heads of the USA, China and Russia having their personal time together and I felt the heat of war drop to a freezing point. They should do this every quarter and save the rest of the world a lot of worries.
One can be a rogue leader like Kim Jung-un of North Korea, of course. If one has the guts to take any and all risks but have aces in the hand, like nuclear armaments, then one can disrupt the international stability. That stability is not because there is a perfect balance. The strongest nations and those who lead the world in wealth and firepower always have the edge. The superpowers have their coterie of allies, and it is the balance of power and wealth rather than the balance of justice and fairness that thus far keeps the world in check – against a 3rd World war among others. We can wish otherwise, we can even work for the more ideal rather than practical, but we learn to live daily in acceptance of the rules we cannot break without paying a painful price.
The South China Sea and the Western Philippine Sea situation has not been resolved and may never be resolved. There is no political psychic here who sees what the ending will be, and how long that ending will last before it is reshuffled again. Borders are not fixed by political accord unless they can be broken by political discord. The natural borders defined by the oceans have more longevity than the borders we keep, or contest, at present. People who have an interest in history can go through the last few thousand years and realize quickly that borders come and go, not as quick as politicians and religious leaders, but come and go nonetheless. If the Chinese claims over a great area of the world cannot be settled amicably (how is that possible unless claims are withdrawn), then negotiating rather than shooting one another becomes the next best thing.
The Philippine concern over our islands being claimed, or actually being occupied or physically controlled by China, can be quite painful and provokes anger among many of us. This is a continuing issue that will erupt in more emotional fits when triggered by certain incidents or statements. I do not think it is much different than the claim of the descendants of the last Sultan of Sulu who had possession and control over the territory of the Sultanate from today’s Philippine borders to up areas inside Brunei and the Federation of Malaysia. The heirs of the Sultanate have a claim that they cannot implement except by words. They neither have the wealth, the power and the alliances of power to make it happen. The Republic of the Philippines, in a similar situation, does not have the wherewithal to take back what has been occupied and to seal off other islands that remain threatened. Fairness and justice are ideal, but the balance of power rules in international conflict.
Institutional relationships must be fostered, and personal relationships can be a perfect start to strengthen global bonds. There is life after Trump, Xi Jinping, Putin and Duterte, longer maybe than the life before them. While these world leaders do their best to relate with one another without surrendering their respective nation’s interests, they compromise often enough despite being superpowers on their own. We, too, as Filipinos, must prepare to defend and promote the ideals we believe in. By being more self-sufficient, we can have more self-determination in the world of nations. Yet, against conflicting domestic and global interests, we must be open to compromise because we will have to.
The truth is that our domestic affairs will determine how much leeway our nation’s leaders will have when they engage globally. The more we can get together in things important and beneficial to us as a people, the less geopolitics can manipulate our weaknesses. Effective diplomacy is fueled by domestic resources and strength. Let our solidarity define us more than the differences that divide us.