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MANILA, Philippines – A successful candidate for president of the Philippines will have to decide how the country positions itself on the world stage as its chief architect of foreign policy. Presidential debates have so far seen Vice President Leni Robredo and Senator Panfilo Lacson emerge as well-versed in their visions for Philippine diplomacy.
In dealing with China in the West Philippine Sea, Robredo stuck to leveraging the 2016 Hague ruling and building alliances with other countries while beefing up Philippine defenses. On the Russia-Ukraine crisis, Lacson insisted on condemning Russia’s invasion of its neighboring country, pointing out how it violated international law.
Against their rivals for Malacañang, Lacson and Robredo’s positions echo what experts have recommended the Philippine government do to address key issues facing both the country, and the international community at present.
Taking a stand
On the issue of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Lacson immediately zeroed in on the effects of war in Europe on a country like the Philippines. “Huwag nating sabihing malayo ang Ukraine sa Pilipinas o malayo ang Pilipinas sa Ukraine. May tama tayo rito (Let’s not say Ukraine is far from the Philippines or the Philippines is far from Ukraine. We’re affected by this),” he said.
The veteran lawmaker listed several areas where Filipinos would feel the impact of tensions: oil prices, to which, he said, special provisions of the 2022 national budget would allow government to provide fuel subsidies in the event of spikes in oil prices to over $100 per barrel. Trade too, Lacson added, citing the 1.2 billion euros in trade the Philippines has with the European Union. And power supply, which the Department of Energy should be able to address with its interruptible load program, he said.
Robredo underscored the need for the president to have both “vigilance and foresight” in anticipating the effects of war in Ukraine. She agreed with Lacson’s proposals, adding that taxes on fuel and power may also need to be reviewed in case of any emergency. The crisis should also prompt efforts to have the Philippines develop more local sources of electricity.
Lacson, along with Robredo, had been among five candidates who said the Philippines should not remain neutral on the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Similar positions were expressed by physician Dr Jose Montemayor Jr., labor leader Leody De Guzman, and former defense secretary Norberto Gonzalez.
Manila Mayor Isko Moreno, former presidential spokesperson and foreign affairs undersecretary Ernesto Abella, and presidential bet Faisal Mangondato preferred the opposite, saying the Philippines should take a neutral position in the meantime.
Asked to explain his stand, Moreno emphasized the time aspect of the question, saying Filipinos in Ukraine should first be brought to safety and that responding to the COVID-19 pandemic was a more urgent concern.
“Ano naman ang kinalaman ni Juan Dela Cruz, ni Pedro sa kasalukuyang hirap na kinakaharap ng ating mga kababayan?” Moreno said. (What’s it to [the average] Juan Dela Cruz, Pedro right now when our countrymen are facing hardships?)
Lacson, however, said that the Philippines must call out Russia’s actions as Manila was a signatory to the United Nations (UN) charter, which saw countries commit to maintaining peace and avoiding aggression. He also pointed to how renouncing war as an instrument of foreign policy was in the Philippine Constitution.
“Dapay may pakialam tayo (We should care about this),” said Lacson, a member of the Senate foreign relations committee. “Hindi naman masama kung makisama tayo sa peace-loving nations para maging bahagi ‘yong boses natin na pagkondena, kasi aggression talaga ‘yan, invasion.”
(It’s not bad to join other peace-loving nations and to be part of those who condemn because that is really aggression, invasion.)
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has likewise been viewed by many experts as a fault line in rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding observed over the last few years. Moscow’s actions marked a significant escalation in this struggle, adding to the urgency for countries to call out its violations.
Off stage, when asked what position he would take after Filipinos’ safety was assured, Moreno said he would abide by its relationship with the UN.
Other candidates were not able to expound on their position. In related questions, De Guzman said the Philippines should take a stand on the issue, proposing that Ukraine should be “neutral” to avoid a “full blown” war.
Asked on how he would deal with China in the West Philippine Sea if plans raised in earlier debated would fail, Moreno said he would “insist on the Hague ruling” and build alliances with other countries to assert Filipinos’ rights.
“Maraming bagay basta pinagpursigihan lang natin, as long as we continue to insist on things legally in a peaceful manner and fair. What is important to us, lagi’t lagi para sa akin, ano ang puwedeng kapakinabangan ng ating bansa, ng bawat Pilipino?” said Moreno, who in earlier debates said he would ensure the country’s armed forces were in the area.
(There’s a lot of things as long as we pursue it, as long as we continue to insist on things legally, in a peaceful manner and fair. What’s important to us, and always for me is, what can our country gain? For every Filipino?)
Backed by experience on the national stage, Robredo said she would tap the Philippines’ “instruments of national power” from “Day 1” of her presidency. The Vice President was referring to the concept of using the country’s elements of power: diplomacy, information, military, and economics.
Robredo said she would strengthen ties with countries who held the same beliefs as the Philippines on the issue, in order to rally support in case of any aggression, and gather “national consensus” or a narrative where Filipinos are united in their stance on the West Philippine Sea.
Robredo likewise vowed to fund efforts of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to improve its defense posture and ensure that the Philippine economy is resilient so that it would not become vulnerable to foreign “predatory practices.”
Plans laid out by Robredo were an apparent swipe at the Duterte administration’s strategy in the area which ultimately reaped little to no rewards for the Philippines, and had been characterized by experts as an approach in “total disarray.”
CNN Philippines, meanwhile, said that if frontrunner Bongbong Marcos were present, it would have asked the former senator his Plan B if his preference for direct negations with Beijing failed to produce any fruitful outcome. Marcos again snubbed a debate, instead barnstorming in his stronghold Pangasinan on Sunday, February 27.
From statements made in media interviews and fora, Marcos has mostly echoed President Rodrigo Duterte’s stand on the issue, sharing his preference for bilateral negotiations and seeking a fishing agreement with China.
Experts including retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio characterized the position of the dictator’s son as pro-China, as well as “shallow, outdated, and simply uninformed.” – Rappler.com