The next president and China


Former Senate President
Manny Villar

Buried in the plethora of election-related news items this past week was the telephone summit between President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. According to the statement released by the Presidential Communications Office, the two leaders discussed wide-ranging issues during the one-hour meeting but mainly focused on the key challenges facing both countries and the world, namely, the West Philippine Sea (WPS), the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, and the coronavirus pandemic which continues to pose a threat to every nation.

The Palace statement noted that both the Philippines and China renewed their commitment to “exert all efforts to maintain peace, security and stability in the West Philippine Sea by exercising restraint, dissipating tensions and working on a mutually agreeable framework for functional cooperation.” That is a lot of diplomatic jargon. But I particularly like what followed:

“Both leaders acknowledged that even while disputes existed, both sides remained committed to broaden the space for positive engagements which reflected the dynamic and multidimensional relations of the Philippines and China.”

I like the term “space for positive engagements” because it describes perfectly one of President Duterte’s strengths as a leader — his handling of our foreign policy. This is something that is often overlooked but the President showed his diplomatic skills in the six years that he dealt with China as President. Despite the many difficult issues — mostly geopolitical — hounding our bilateral relations, the President managed to make China a trustworthy ally helping us during the pandemic and, more importantly, supporting our infrastructure program. It is that careful balance between asserting one’s sovereignty and maximizing the benefits of our bilateral relation with a global superpower that I find particularly impressive.

This is something that should be considered as a critical issue as the May 2022 elections near—which candidate can offer the same, if not better, approach to managing our foreign relations? We need a President who can continue with the same astuteness and dexterity as we pursue an independent foreign policy and maintain friendly relations not just with one superpower but with regional allies and neighbors.

Both leaders, in fact, affirmed the centrality of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the importance of continuing discussions and concluding the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea. This is what “space for positive engagements” is all about. We may have our differences but we should be able to talk about those conflicts. More importantly, we should also focus on areas where we can agree on. During the time of President Duterte, our government has lodged numerous diplomatic protests over “incursions” on our territory. But these have not prevented our two countries from pursuing mutually beneficial and respectful bilateral relations.

This relationship with China has been complicated by our historic “special friendship” with the United States. President Duterte successfully re-calibrated this “special friendship” by expanding and strengthening our relations with other nations like China, Japan, ASEAN countries, and even, Russia.

How will the next president handle our foreign relations? Will it be through an adversarial, banging-on-the-table approach of pursuing our territorial rights? Will it be through complete abdication and surrender? Or will it be a middle-ground, pragmatic approach that avoids extreme strategies in favor of one which truly serves the national interest?

This issue of the handling of our foreign policy is equally important as the many domestic issues animating the electoral campaign discourse. So rather than arguing who has the bigger crowd during rallies or whatever fresh controversy partisans in social media find more engaging, perhaps it is more beneficial for the country to discuss these critical issues and help our voters make an informed and reasoned decision.