Beijing vs Washington

By Michael Henry Yusingco, LL.M

It is so easy to get fired up in the fight for supremacy between the United States (US) and China. And it is so tempting to think that we must take sides in this historical geopolitical drama. It is a good thing that as far as our government is concerned, President Bongbong Marcos has set the record straight. We do not have to.

In the landmark case of Saguisag vs. Executive Secretary, the Supreme Court affirmed that “the power to defend the State and to act as its representative in the international sphere inheres in the person of the President.” Hence, the directives of President Marcos in this regard must be followed to the letter.

Last month the President became the first Filipino leader to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, an annual event attended by security experts and defense officials from various countries, including the US and China.

He admitted in his remarks that “rules-based order has allowed our region to flourish.” As proven by “the success of the stories of our region — be it the postwar revival of Japan, the economic miracles of Korea and in Southeast Asia, [or] the rise of China and of India.”

President Marcos also identified several contemporary hard truths in the broader Indo-Pacific region. One of them is “the strategic competition between China and the United States.” Which he laments is “constraining the strategic choices of regional states” while “exacerbating flashpoints” and creating “new security dilemmas.”

The President then clarified how his administration would respond to this battle of the behemoths. He said that “unjust narratives that seek to subsume distinct national interests [into] so-called “major country” dynamics” must be rejected. He vigorously rebuffs “misguided interpretations that paint our region as a mere theater of geopolitical rivalries.”

If government policy is not to take sides, what then is his administration’s positioning in all this?

In his speech, President Marcos reiterated the critical value of respecting “ASEAN Centrality not only with words, but with action.” He emphasized that, “All partnerships and arrangements must never displace or dilute, but rather uphold and complement ASEAN’s central role.”

However, anchoring foreign policy in relation to Indo-Pacific affairs on ASEAN Centrality is just one aspect of the government’s approach. President Marcos also asserted that we will “build our capabilities to protect our interest in our own maritime domain and in the global commons.”

He declared that, “Under our Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept, we shall develop our capacity to project our forces into areas where we must, by constitutional duty and by legal right, protect our interests and preserve our patrimony.”

But the President was quick to clarify that “as we build our defense capabilities, so shall we continue to invest in diplomacy.” More importantly, he urged that, “Geopolitics must not distract us from our fundamental duty as civil servants, as public intellectuals, as statesmen: To deliver for our people, and to safeguard the future of the coming generations.”

To summarize, President Marcos aims to utilize ASEAN Centrality as a diplomatic fulcrum when dealing with matters concerning the Indo-Pacific. This means diplomacy is still the primary method for boosting domestic economic sectors and resolving regional issues. Hence, the importance of building consensus and strengthening alliances when the opportunity beckons.

The President also commits to strengthen our national defense capability. Previous presidents have made this promise as well, but none have lived up to it. Pertinently, President Marcos recently announced that a $35-billion budget has been set aside to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines, with the Navy getting the largest allocation.

Obviously, the government must have an acute awareness and deep understanding of the US-China dynamics.  But as President Marcos says, the Philippines’ future is not tied to this rivalry.

Therefore, public officials, particularly those directly involved in national security, should stick to the parameters set by the President in Singapore. They must not fashion themselves as political pundits or social media influencers actively participating in the pro-US/anti-China talkfest in the public sphere.

Strategic transparency with regards to the West Philippine Sea means reporting the facts, and nothing but. Hence, official spokespersons must not engage in word wars, name calling, and other amateurish antics.  Leave the geopolitics commentary to the academics and analysts. And partisan politics is an absolute no-go zone.

The door to a diplomatic resolution should always be open. Thus, public officials need to maintain the lines of communication with hostile nations. Not create hindrances.

The twin objectives of sustained diplomacy and a self-reliant defense posture should convey to both allies and rivals that the Philippines will come to any negotiation table with goodwill and resolve. More importantly, this approach benefits Beijing with the option to graciously admit that they do not actually own the entire South China Sea.

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