Foreign policy and national growth

As we mark 118 years of independence this month, to be simply a spectator is to be either a wastrel or a rascal, or both, amid a strong motivation to engage in facile algebra by substituting “aligned” and “nonaligned” for our terms. Precisely because of the trauma-inducing issues of our foreign relations—most especially over the territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea—it is our duty to reassert the principles and considerations that transcend our times.

The primordial and highest goal of our homeland is national survival. But there is a great and difficult distance between goals and their attainment: A nation-state is always confronted by the necessity of simultaneously fighting on two fronts—the internal needs of its society and its external relations with other nations.


Internal problems consist of the social imbalance between the affluent few and the impoverished many, leading to social discontent and injustice. They find expression in rebellion, dissidence and secessionism. Poor roads and bridges to serve as arteries of commerce; pitiful irrigation, rural electrification, flood control and related physical requirements; diversion of limited resources for the maintenance of public order and its territorial integrity—all these limit the citizenry’s options in achieving a better life.

Our best hope lies in the use of the state’s concentrated power, to determine the priorities and allocate resources accordingly, given the historic greed of the economic elite that has thwarted the national purpose.


What is not clear is the necessary connection between our internal and external problems and between our internal and external solutions.

The universe has become an interdependent unit, in which we must exist at peace with all. A fall in copper prices in the London Exchange drastically changes the lives of thousands of miners from Benguet to Surigao. A great sugar harvest in Louisiana can lead to misery among sugar plantation workers from Batangas to Negros, as our sugar may not be able to sell. Since our coconut oil production is dependent on European and American buyers, a drop in their consumption as they find substitutes will force bleak lives on thousands of coconut farmers.

Hence, to be tied to one market, as we have been in the past, is to be tied to one ideology and to be at the behest of one patron. We must return as payment for his patronage the self-respect of our people for his foreign policy and our blood for his wars. To be the friend of only one is to risk the contempt and the enmity of all others.

Foreign policy then is a major instrument to achieve domestic objectives and is crucial in our nation’s life or death.

It affects most critically our economy and security. A policy of self-reliance is not a choice but a necessity, with fortitude to do what must be done. We live not as we will, but as we must.

We need not belabor the absolute necessity of a prosperous economy. Nothing disarms insurgents, secessionists and rebels more effectively than national prosperity. It is glorious to be rich, as proclaimed by the Chinese communist premier Deng Xiaoping.

At present, the hotly contested issue that threatens regional peace and security is the conflict over boundaries in the South China Sea, through which a third of global maritime trade travels: 60 percent of South Korean, Japanese and Taiwanese energy supplies and 80 percent of Chinese crude oil imports. Beneath the seabed lie vast oil and gas reserves.


Filipinas permanently lost Scarborough/Panatag Shoal—or Bajo de Masinloc, its Spanish-era name—to China in June 2012 when President Aquino ordered two vessels from the Coast Guard and one from the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, stationed at the shoal southeast of Zambales, to reroute to port. These ships had been anchored in the shoal’s lagoon since April to arrest Chinese fishermen for illegal fishing, but were prevented by Chinese surveillance ships. He was advised by Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV that Chinese ships circling the shoal had agreed to a “simultaneous withdrawal.” The Philippines agreed to withdraw its three ships, but China simply reduced its armada of 31 fishing boats and 50 dinghies to three maritime surveillance ships, and didn’t withdraw them all together.

As a consequence, the sovereignty dispute was resolved by China’s effective control over the shoal. It is unlikely to relinquish it. It has imposed a 15-nautical-mile perimeter restriction, and none of our vessels has since been able to enter the area. International law recognizes “occupation as ownership.” The federally-funded Center for Naval Analyses of the US Navy in Arlington, Virginia, in its November 2014 report, said America is unlikely to intervene in the territorial row, unless Chinese military officials attack elements of our armed forces. Washington takes no position on sovereignty claims.

The Philippines was easily duped by the Chinese that they would withdraw their ships from Scarborough if we did. They did not.

The Philippines has since lodged a case contesting China’s territorial claim at the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, Sadly, international law and UN conventions have no immovable weight against guns. Power in itself legitimizes, notwithstanding the ancient maps of Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio that prove the Philippines’ legitimate claim.

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s early pronouncement that he is open to bilateral talks with Beijing—as he awaits the ruling of the UN tribunal—augurs well for regional stability and growth. Both countries could agree that the disputed area constitutes a common heritage for humankind for joint exploration and benefit.  Its  demilitarization as a zone of commerce and international navigation would make the PH-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, with its dubious protection, pompously irrelevant.

To catapult Filipinas into a “nation of shopkeepers,” as Napoleon once insulted England in happier times, may lack the heady glamour of vast alliances, but it will define us most clearly, not as a Yankee ward, but as deeply committed to a prosperous life for all people in all nations.

Above all, we are constrained to depend upon our imagination of a better society to rally our people to such a pitch of loyalty so it cannot be subverted. This takes time and resources that can come only from mass prosperity.

Astute diplomacy and a policy of aloofness from hostile entanglements will give us the time and resources precious for national stability and growth.

Reynaldo V. Silvestre, a retired Army colonel, bemedaled officer and multiawarded writer, belongs to Class 1968 of the Vanguard in UP Diliman. He was teaching political science at UP Manila when called to active duty as first lieutenant in 1975.

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TAGS: China, foreign relations, South China Sea, territorial dispute
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