True independence: Beyond China and the West | Inquirer Opinion

True independence: Beyond China and the West

QUOTE CARD FOR HORIZONS: True independence: Beyond China and the West

“Japan is a friend closer than a brother.”

That’s how former president Rodrigo Duterte welcomed his then-Japanese counterpart, the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to Manila in early 2017. Throughout his six-year term in office, and decades-long stint as a provincial official, Duterte maintained extremely cordial ties with Japan, which has had a century-old diplomatic and commercial presence in his hometown of Davao.

In many ways, his warm embrace of Japan made sense, since, as Duterte put it during a late-2016 visit to Tokyo: “Japan has really been our biggest helper.” It’s true: post-war Japan has been a top source of development aid and infrastructure investment throughout the past half-a-century. But Duterte’s Japan policy also exposed the hypocrisy of his supposed “independent” foreign policy posturing.


Lest we forget, this is the same president that never shied away from lampooning our Western allies for their atrocities more than a century earlier or at the dawn of modernity. Recall his whole diplomatic offensive on the “Balangiga Bell” issue, which pertains to the horrible massacre of Filipino civilians at the hand of American colonizers in 1901.

And yet, the same “Mr. Independent” Duterte never raised any issue with Imperial Japan’s dark past in the 1940s. One could even argue that Imperial Japan’s brutality during the World War II years far surpassed the colonial inequities of Western imperialists. Yet, there is no evidence that Duterte pressed the Japanese on Tokyo’s historical atrocities. Mind you: Some of the “comfort women” victims were still alive during his tenure!

But what was even worse than Duterte’s blatant hypocrisy was his strategic naïveté. Here, dear reader, I’m referring to the former president’s almost slavish predisposition toward Beijing, even at the height of the Reed Bank crisis and a whole host of atrocities against Filipino fishermen in recent years. Not 100 years ago. Not 70 years ago. But during his own term in office!

Notwithstanding his headline-grabbing braggadocio, Duterte was such a geopolitical amateur that he failed to secure even a single big-ticket infrastructure investment from his Chinese patrons; nor did he secure any mutually beneficial compromise in the West Philippine Sea.


What makes Duterte’s foreign policy legacy particularly tragic, however, is that in a legitimate effort to reduce our dependence on the West, he ended up making his country vulnerable to the predatory designs of an Eastern superpower. Let’s be honest: For strongmen like Duterte, it’s never really about an “independent” foreign policy, but instead choosing the right strategic patron to consummate a domestic political agenda.

To be clear, I believe we shouldn’t be “dependent” on any foreign power in defense of our national interest. I also believe that we should transcend false binaries by rejecting both Euro-centric and Sino-centric conceptions of the international order, while avoiding whataboutism and false equivalence.


Lest we forget: it’s not the United States or the European Union that is claiming the West Philippine Sea or threatening our Taiwanese neighbor with invasion, right? And this is why we should cooperate with like-minded allies against those who violate our sovereign rights and bully our fishermen and soldiers well within our exclusive economize zone.

Contrary to the contention of some pro-Beijing propagandists, there are indications that leading figures within the current administration do realize the importance of a more “multi-aligned” foreign policy.

No less than Ambassador Jose “Babe” Romualdez, our envoy to Washington, has told me in recent interviews that the Philippines is committed to a truly independent foreign policy, whereby “we are not leaning on just one country like the United States” since “[w]e don’t want any country to dominate another country.”

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Accordingly, the current administration is pursuing “robust relationships” with a network of allies, partners, and “like-minded countries” in order to “kee[p] stability in the region and assis[t] our effort to protect our territorial integrity.”

Charlatans and shallow thinkers often think that it all comes down to choosing between either our former colonizers or new imperial powers. But any astute strategist and genuine patriot would know that “middle powers” such as the Philippines are now in a position to exercise strategic agency by not supplanting old patrons for even more rapacious ones, but instead working with various partners and powers depending on our national interest. Yes, that’s a truly “independent” foreign policy!

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TAGS: Horizons, Maritime Dispute, PH foreign policy, PH-China relations, Philippine sovereignty

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