Independent PH foreign policy | Inquirer Opinion

Independent PH foreign policy

BEEFING UP PH MARITIME DEFENSE The Philippine Navy’s newly acquired frigate, BRP Ramon Alcaraz (foreground), is part of the modernization program of the Navy. It will be used to patrol the nation’s waters, including the West Philippine Sea. Above right is a Chinese vessel at the contested Spratly group of islands. AFP/AP/PHILIPPINE NAVY/EDWIN BACASMAS

BEEFING UP PH MARITIME DEFENSE The Philippine Navy’s newly acquired frigate, BRP Ramon Alcaraz (foreground), is part of the modernization program of the Navy. It will be used to patrol the nation’s waters, including the West Philippine Sea. Above right is a Chinese vessel at the contested Spratly group of islands. AFP/AP/PHILIPPINE NAVY/EDWIN BACASMAS

FOREIGN policy, at long last, has figured in the consciousness of the average Filipino, thanks to China’s aggression and bullying in the West Philippine Sea, driving away the Filipino people from their rightful claims to the 200-mile economic zone granted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

But we should not forget, as we feel Chinese military and strategic power breathing down our necks, that our l987 Constitution gives pride of place to a new and important idea for any self-respecting country—an “independent foreign policy.”


The Constitution states: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest and the right to self-determination.”

Right to self-defense


Clearly, an independent foreign policy essentially means that a country has a duty to defend itself and must put in place strategic institutions, which will enable it to protect its sovereignty and national interest. The people and government must preserve their right to self-determination and safeguard their independence.

Understood in its entire context as amplified in the Constitution, an independent foreign policy is not a “go-it-alone” foreign policy. Neither does it mean the absence of any alliances.

Rather, it means a long-term, deliberate government policy sustained and adjusted by several administrations aimed at making the government and its people responsible for containing and responding to internal and external threats to ensure the nation’s security.

Choose dependable allies

In the process, we should carefully choose dependable, long-term allies but part with them, when conditions demand, at the proper time. The national, regional and global interests of our country remain priority considerations.

The leaders of a medium-sized, archipelagic state like the Philippines have many strategic considerations to balance simultaneously. An independent foreign policy cannot be fully understood nor appreciated without an overriding sense of the maritime character of our country.

An archipelago is a country united by its surrounding waters. Contrast this to a continent whose borders are defined by its land area. A strong Navy, supported by a capable Air Force and skilled Army, is a must to protect our more than 7,000 islands.


The Philippines figures among the top 10 countries having the longest coastlines in the world. Indonesia is No. 2, Russia No. 4, the Philippines No. 5 and the United States No. 9.


For the Philippines, a quintessential archipelago, an independent foreign policy means a determined and sustained long-term policy of self-reliance in meeting internal and external threats, a goal which cannot be achieved overnight but, rather, in the span of many years of determined effort with the support of succeeding presidents and their administrations, and generations of patriotic Filipinos.

A pipe dream? But this is the only way a seemingly poor country like ours can end its beggar-like dependence on big powers like the mighty USA or lessen its cowering fear of the arrogance of a superpower like China.

Wake-up call

For too long, we have depended on the United States to be responsible in defending our country. The alarming Chinese threat on the West Philippine Sea is, indeed, a wake-up call to us to defend our land and people because no one else will.

Yet, the role of the Filipinos who fought in the Filipino-American War (1900-1903) for the independence of their country was grossly misinterpreted by the American colonizers who called the Filipinos insurrectos—that is, insurgents in their own country, which the Filipinos wanted to liberate from the Spanish colonizers. The insurrectos should instead have been called “freedom fighters.”

US policies weakened AFP

Why the Armed Forces of the Philippines is inadequate in meeting our maritime external threats can be partly explained by American traditional policies during the early years of US colonial rule.

Wanting perhaps to ensure the market for the technological marvel of the early American period—the American car—the Americans did not bother to find out that our ancestors were Austronesians whose maritime exploits enabled them to reach distant lands without the aid of the compass and mastered instead the movement of stars, the currents and the winds in relation to their destination.

To answer the challenge of the presence of two giant bodies of water—the Western Pacific and the South China Sea—embracing our archipelago, the American response was minuscule. They created the Bureau of the Coast Guard and Transportation, which aimed to maintain peace and order, transport Philippine Constabulary troops throughout the archipelago, and guard against smuggling and piracy.

Such were the simple, uncomplicated problems of peace and order in our country then. In 1935, the Philippine government passed the National Defense Act, which placed the burden of the defense of the Philippines on ground forces formed from reservists. The military advisers, led by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, and our Filipino legislators who passed the National Defense Act, saw no need for a Commonwealth air force and navy since the US Asiatic Fleet provided the defense needs of the colony.

Pearl Harbor

But with the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941 by the Imperial Japanese forces, the United States withdrew its Asiatic Fleet and the Philippines had to rely on its Offshore Patrol PT boats, to repel Japanese attacks from the sea. That the Japanese forces occupied Manila on Jan. 1, 1942 showed the lightning speed of enemy attack from the sea and the utter weakness of our maritime defense preparations.

The rapid and complete destruction of Manila during World War II and the unspeakable horrors of Japanese military occupation provide lessons that teach us to be ready and self-reliant in defending ourselves and not to be caught in the quarrels of bigger powers. Does this mean we should have no alliances? Of course not.

We need friends and allies in this expensive defense endeavor. It requires the astute combination of the talents of our diplomats and military leaders who must be imbued with the constitutional directive about shaping an independent foreign policy.

Singapore a standout

Let us look at countries that have taken upon themselves from the beginning of their march to nationhood the responsibility to create and finance their own defense capability. In Asia, Singapore is a standout, spending 20 percent of its national budget for defense. It has been called “the tiny state with military clout.”

This defense priority is to remain for some time, given regional tensions, threats arising from terrorism and piracy, and the need to protect its considerable economic assets. Above all, Singapore defends itself against aggression by stronger powers and the possibility of conflict among bigger powers. Singapore’s favored military supplier is the United States and has not bought military equipment from either China or Russia.


India, with its land borders that it shares with seven other countries and maritime boundaries with three countries plus its restive ethnic minorities, has given high priority to its security and military needs. It is noteworthy that the Indian Department of Defense Production is part of the Ministry of Defense and is responsible for the indigenous production of equipment used by the Indian Armed Forces. The Department of Defense Production comprises 41 Indian ordnance factories and has produced its first indigenous aircraft carrier, the INS Vikrant.

I once asked the former Indian President, Abdul Kalam, a respected space scientist, how India, a developing country, managed to produce its own space capability. He replied: “Simply, by using native talent, self-reliance and faith and pride in ourselves, as an ancient culture. We learned from the Russians, Americans and from others who were ahead of us in some projects and we looked into our own traditions as well.”

This is the mentality that we hope our military will adopt if we are to forge an independent foreign policy. The Indian Armed Forces is the world’s largest arms importer with Russia, Israel, France and the United States being its top foreign suppliers.

Add to this contradiction in terms, India is one of the leaders and founders of the Non-Aligned Movement, which aims to avoid involvement in any big-power conflict. India and the Philippines, two of Asia’s functioning democracies with open markets, are coming closer to each other, especially in trade and military matters. They could be natural allies in safeguarding maritime freedom in the Indo-Pacific region.

Pointers from Vietnam

Vietnam’s military policy could give us some pointers. Vietnam shares a common maritime border with China and Chinese-Vietnamese confrontations have taken place, the latest in May 2014 when Hanoi protested Beijing’s use of an off-shore oil drilling rig near the Paracel Islands.

But Vietnam has been careful about directly engaging Beijing’s military. Only lately in 2007 did it seriously decide to adopt a maritime strategy. Vietnam has reached out to any major power that might help: Russia, Japan, India and even its former adversary, the United States.

To finance its military modernization, Vietnam has linked, for instance, its military bills payable to Russia with other projects undertaken by the latter. Gazprom signed an agreement with Petro Vietnam to jointly develop natural gas fields in the South China Sea. Vietnam has modernized its military rapidly, recognizing that it has to protect its borders, islands and national sovereignty.


Let us now look at a unique concept of national defense—that of neutral Switzerland. The virtues of neutrality were discovered by the Swiss during the unending wars in Europe when the Swiss Confederation renounced all military and political alliances. Since 1815, Switzerland has remained outside military conflicts, finding refuge in the protective heights of the Swiss Alps, underground fortifications and gun emplacements.

But despite its choice of neutrality, Switzerland has decided to defend itself from invaders for no one else will but themselves. However, the Swiss way is unique. Switzerland has no regular standing Army and depends on universal military training for all Swiss males 20 years of age, who undergo a basic training course. Members of the Swiss Army can keep their military equipment at home, including rifles and uniforms, which are inspected regularly and for which there are heavy penalties for improper care.

Switzerland is not a signatory to the Nato treaties, although, with latest technology in the art of warfare and latest political developments in Europe, a large part of the population of Switzerland considers itself part of the defense of Western Europe. How to preserve its tradition of neutrality and remain within the Western European democratic way of life is a challenge for Switzerland and its neighbors.

Bigger defense budget

The Philippines at long last has decided to increase significantly its defense budget. In the proposed 2006 budget that Malacañang submitted recently to Congress, the budget of the Department of National Defense increased to P172.7 billion, up P18.6 billion from 2015, mainly to acquire frigates and patrol aircraft. This is not a case of guns versus butter but a welcome decision to spend for both guns and butter, for no one else will.

Our allies can help through cooperation and achieving mutual goals but only to the extent that the alliance can advance their own national interest. However, every effort must be taken to ensure that a budget increase will not become a military shopping spree, which this budgetary rise might turn out to be.

I noticed, as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee during the Cory Aquino administration, that at the hearings of the AFP Modernization Act, long shopping lists for fancy-sounding military equipment were submitted but, when asked to explain what the advanced technology was all about, explanations were not satisfactory at all. It was obvious that it required a lot of training, study and honesty to become a weapons expert.

Learn from others

May this opportunity to modernize our military not prove to be another exercise in wasting precious and much-needed resources at this crucial period of our struggle for national survival. Let us also remember India’s method to learn from the technology of others. This can be done by breaking apart say, a super-patrol boat, manufactured elsewhere, into its component parts and carefully studying how we might duplicate it.

There are, of course, patent laws but the experiences of other countries have shown that ingenuity and imagination can help jump over such formalities. Access to knowledge and solutions to puzzles have no limits. It is tempting with funds on hand to just buy and automatically acquire the technology of others. But that will not increase our global ranking in weaponry.


Let us instead use the creativity native to Filipinos to good use! After all, we have to graduate from our local paltik industry. In addition, ordinary Filipinos, like our fisherfolk, men and women, and local government officials must be active participants in defending our coastal areas.

Our foreign policy in the West Philippine Sea has become a matter of survival for our sea-oriented populations and institutions.

Magnificent 12

I was not part of the Magnificent 12 who voted for the rejection of the renewal of the treaty with the United States for the use of Subic Bay Naval Station. Wanting to support President Cory who had invited me to join her Senate team at campaign time and as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, I had hoped for a limited extension of the treaty of about five years, keeping in mind the plight of the thousands who would be unemployed if the base closed immediately.

But in retrospect, I now realize the Senate did right in closing a chapter of overdependence on the United States. The friendship and the goodwill for the United States as an ally are relatively intact because, for all of its shortcomings, visible and invisible, the United States has helped the Philippines to be an open and democratic society in Asia, no matter how imperfect.

In matters of our relations with other nations, however, the national interest must come first and we cannot allow subservience to other countries, even with our allies.

The components are in place to help our government and the Filipino people now to begin and forge an independent foreign policy. China threatens our rights to have access to resources and means of livelihood. Let us defend our homeland as befits a self-respecting nation and a courageous people!

(Leticia Ramos Shahani was senator from 1987 to 1998 and served as chair of the foreign relations committee. She was with the United Nations as assistant secretary general for Social Development and Humanitarian Affairs in 1980-1986, and was also appointed as secretary general of the 1985 Third World Conference on Women. A career ambassador of the Philippines, she served as ambassador to Romania and Australia.)

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TAGS: defense, Foreign affairs, foreign policy, Leticia Shahani, Military, military spending, sovereignty, West Philippine Sea
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