Losing our independent foreign policy

On June 12, 2020, Malacañang announced that President Duterte and Xi Jinping of China held talks that lasted 38 minutes. The intention was evidently to emphasize the close relations between our two countries and that we now have an “independent foreign policy.”

However, the outcome of the conversation leads to the opposite conclusion; our relationship with China fits that between a bully and his victim. The agenda of the talks is dictated by the bully.


The most important issues in our bilateral relations were omitted. China’s acts remained unchallenged on the West Philippine Sea, including the blockade of Ayungin and of Panatag Shoal. In return, Xi promised Digong that we would get “priority access” to the COVID-19 vaccine. This is the worst territorial deal since the Dutch bought Manhattan from the American Indians with beads worth $24. At least in that deal the Indians received a tangible return—the beads. In our case, we traded our territory for a vague promise: We would be given vaccines that may not even be developed.

Mr. Duterte could have asked China for compensation for the COVID-19 infection in our country in lieu of the phantom vaccine. The first three local COVID-19 cases were Chinese tourists. One of them died—the first case of a COVID-19 death outside China. The infection will shrink our GDP by 4 percent. Evidently, this was omitted since China set the agenda of the talks.


The contention that abrogating our defense agreements with the United States will give us an independent foreign policy is wrongly attributed to Claro M. Recto. A foreign policy is only a means, not an end. A foreign policy must be implemented properly to safeguard national sovereignty.

Modern diplomacy is anchored on Lord Palmerston’s dictum that “We have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent (national) interests.” This is the central/peripheral approach in conducting diplomacy. A nation defines interests crucial to its existence that are non-negotiable. However, issues peripheral to its survival it can trade.

Under the 1969-72 Integrated Reorganization Plan, we restructured our foreign service along the central/peripheral format. Our embassies in the Asean countries and with the big powers are Class I: They involve affairs central to our foreign relations. Our embassies in smaller countries (mainly in Africa and South America) are Class II: They involve affairs peripheral to our diplomacy.

In his speech “Our mendicant foreign policy,” Recto reaffirmed Palmerston’s doctrine thus: “x x x every state takes care of its national interests, and it is the responsibility of the government to determine what these interests are, and to adopt and carry out the necessary policies x x x sacrificing if necessary the more transitory interests, like temporary trade advantages, in the same way that the good strategist foregoes a battle to win the war.”

Recto’s statement is consistent with the Palmerston doctrine. He did not anchor the independence of our foreign policy on our defense ties with the United States.

Four months after Recto’s speech on April 17, 1951, Gen. Carlos P. Romulo took exception to the Japanese Peace Treaty proposed by the United States without any provision for reparations payments. We did not sign a peace treaty with Japan until 1956, when the treaty carried a reparations provision. Since Unctad I (the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) in Geneva in 1964, marking the onset of the North/South dispute between the industrial countries and the developing countries, we have consistently been voting against the United States. The United States aligns with the First World countries, while we vote with the Third World countries.

Thus, we had an independent foreign policy when Mr. Duterte assumed office in 2016, since we always asserted our rights on matters crucial to our national interest. It was the Duterte administration and its fawning attitude toward China that ended this policy.


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Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career ambassador. He was a member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the 1969-72 Integrated Reorganization Commission which designed the Philippines’ Foreign Service along the central/peripheral structure. He is the only surviving member of this committee.

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TAGS: Commentary, hermenegildo c. cruz, independent foreign policy, PH-China relations
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