“We believe that friends help each other and utilize constructive engagement to achieve common goals. In truth, we all share the same aspiration of greater peace, progress and prosperity.” This was the pronouncement of President Rodrigo Duterte during the traditional New Year’s Day Vin d’Honneur held in Malacañang Palace.
The brief prepared speech delivered by the President before members of his Cabinet, other government officials and the diplomatic community, I believe, encapsulates his administration’s direction in pursuing the nation’s foreign relations.
The President said that the Philippines would “continue to build on our friendship founded on common objective, shared values and time honored principles of international law.” He also said that “in a world that recognizes our interconnectedness and respect each others’ sovereign independence, the horizons and frontiers of cooperation are virtually limitless. Friendship, after all, knows no bounds.”
In these succinct words the chief foreign relations architect of the Philippines debunked claims by critics that he has no clear foreign policy. Clearly, the president understands the need for international cooperation. He knows that it is to the interest of the Filipinos to work together with other nations.
This is a long-standing principle of Philippine foreign policy: “constructive engagement” with the community of nations on common goals like ending poverty, peace, accountability and transparency and other democratic ideals.
But the President also correctly pointed out the need to balance globalization – that phenomenon that created borderless nations – and respect for the independence of all nations.
I completely agree with this foreign policy approach. The technologies that allowed this unprecedented interconnectedness of nations previously separated by distance, water, mountain ranges and differences have allowed us to become a truly global community.
At the same time however, the international community must operate on the principle of mutual respect. The globalization of trade, finance and even culture cannot be used to undermine the sovereignty of another nation. It is this tension between the virtues of globalization and the ideals of national independence and identity that we see in the various unfortunate conflicts around the world.
Achieving a balance in the relationship between these two forces will allow us to achieve our common goals of peace, progress and prosperity. It is a difficult balancing act.
When I chaired the foreign relations committee of the Senate, I remembered that we came across issues that necessitated the assertion of Philippine sovereignty but at the same time required a careful negotiation with our friends and allies.
For instance, we had to protect our kababayans working in the different countries around the world. The Philippine government needed to ensure that our Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) are protected in terms of their employment contracts, rights, and general welfare.
I distinctly remember that I had to raise with our foreign affairs department the need to investigate certain policies that are disadvantageous to Filipino workers. At the time, Hong Kong banned foreign domestic helpers from living out of their employer’s home and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reduced the minimum wage of unskilled OFWs.
I also remember seeking a Senate inquiry on the arrest of 49 Filipino fishermen and the sinking of their boats by the Indonesian Navy.
These issues directly affected the welfare of our people and as a sovereign nation. It is our duty to protect our citizens.
I have always wondered why our foreign policy is underpinned by a policy of fear. We are afraid of everybody – of the US, China and Europe. As a result, we always negotiate – be it in trade, finance, politics – from a position of inferiority. We are always that tiny, poor nation who would give up anything just to get some crumbs of grants and aid.
It is in this context that President Duterte’s foreign policy needs to be understood. Critics should avoid pigeonholing his foreign policy into a few ‘controversial’ remarks about our relations with the United States and his efforts to reach out to China and Russia.
A holistic reading of the President’s statements would reveal that he simply wants to renew, even renegotiate, what he sees as relations that need to be based on mutual respect, to strengthen our existing alliances. And at the same time, he has signified his intention to “pursue new ones.”
His forceful assertion of an independent foreign policy and of Philippine sovereignty should be applauded and not vilified. He is merely making sure that the Philippines is respected and considered as an equal partner on the world stage.
It’s about time we negotiate from a position of strength.
(For comments/feedback email to: [email protected] or visitwww.mannyvillar.com.ph.) (Senator Manny Villar)