The Philippines is the world’s newest flash point. It is extremely prudent that we weigh our foreign policy options carefully. By pursuing its “independent foreign policy,” the Duterte administration apparently seeks to reduce tensions with China, whose territorial ambitions suffered a setback when the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against its occupation of shoals and reefs (since transformed into militarized islands) that are well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. But by cozying up to China and Russia, and distancing ourselves from the United States and the European Union, at least rhetorically, we are inviting other players in the world’s geopolitical battlefield to clash and potentially wreak havoc in our backyard and, more scarily, in our country’s core.
Where the world powers clash, whether directly or through their proxies, there is nothing but trouble. We might end up becoming a failed state or getting totally dismembered.
The latest example is Syria, where America and other regional powers sought to unseat longtime President Bashar al-Assad after having deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Russia, in partnership with Iran, decided to prop up Assad. As a result, the Syrian civil war is now on its fifth year, with no end in sight, with hundreds of thousands of Syrians dead and injured, and millions displaced.
How strong is the Philippine state? An indication is that when the Moro secessionist movement, with its foreign patrons’ active support, took up arms in the 1970s, we were hard put to contain it. Up to now it festers, ready to be revived and exploited by any party wanting to see an emasculated Philippines.
In recent years, we have shown tremendous economic growth, and we are finally taking our place at the table of Asian prosperity. Militarily, we are decades behind our progressive neighbors’ technological capability. President Duterte has jokingly said that we are not going to war—not yet anyway—implying that we are building up our military to attain a semblance of symmetry with our potential foes before we risk any confrontation.
In the meantime, we have resorted to an independent foreign policy that is actually risky brinkmanship because it stokes unfriendly rivalry among the world powers. Maybe Mr. Duterte is playing them against each other so we can get concessions from all of them. No problem there, if we can pull it off. But if a world power destabilizes us and another intervenes, we can say goodbye to our country as we know it.
Even those with contiguous territories like Iraq, Libya and Syria are now failed states or in turmoil, dismembered according to which ethnic or religious group’s militia is backed by which world power. How much more for us? We are already naturally fragmented because we are an archipelago.
Mr. Duterte has been critical of the US and the EU mainly because they are critical of his human rights record. But he is correct about America’s indisputably abominable human rights record, from massacres of the native Americans to Filipinos to Vietnamese to full-scale invasions of sovereign states. But having libertarian ideals, the US has developed a self-correcting mechanism that keeps these abuses in check. After all, these are the realities of conquest and domination.
An effect of globalization is a fragmentation of territories as the world powers jockey for domination and influence where they could. If we are not careful, we will end up being collateral damage in China’s ascension in this part of the world.
Ideally, the whole world is our friend and market. But as with personal friends, the degree of closeness between various countries is not the same. Who is truly our friend and who is truly our enemy? It’s hard to say. Alliances are constantly shifting.
For an independent foreign policy to be truly independent, we must have a neutrality that puts our interests first and foremost, and the ability to defend them.
Roderick Toledo is a freelance communication projects manager.
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