What our China ‘problem’ really means

Julio S. Amador III
Our national interest should be the start of our understanding of our basic foreign policy problems, including our current impasse with China


The Philippines’ initiation of arbitral proceedings against China has taken many people by surprise. To some, it is a brave act by a small nation against a domineering regional neighbor. To others, it is the height of folly, because in the end, China can just ignore this action and still get away with it.

Such is the nature of an anarchic international system, which knows no master beyond the nation-state. Dating back to ancient Greece, the dictum that the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must is still a key point in the study of international relations.

Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi puts it succinctly in a statement at a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2010, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact.” Behind this statement of “fact” is the implicit threat that small countries, such as the Philippines, really have no choice but to accept that the regional order of power is going to change, whether we like it or not.

Generally safe under the United States of America’s security umbrella we, Filipinos, have grown to believe that foreign policy is mainly about our considerable Overseas Foreign Workers (OFW) or, if it crosses our minds, about trade matters that are esoteric except to the knowledgeable few. We seem to have lived under the surety that, being an archipelago, we are safe from possibilities of inter-state conflict and war. China’s changed behavior, from a country asserting that it was on a peaceful rise, to an aggressive would-be seeker of regional hegemony, has upset our beliefs that we need not worry about the prospect of conflict with other nations.

As a nation fascinated or obsessed (depending on your view) with the law, we have also lulled ourselves into thinking that international law is just like any other law. That when a decision is given somewhere in the obscure world of the United Nations, everyone is bound by it and everything will be fine and dandy. However, let us disabuse ourselves of that notion.

States still have the capacity to ignore international laws that they feel are contrary to their national interests. From the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq to the uprisings of the Arab Spring, we have seen how states can pick and choose what international norms they want to observe because at the end of the day, who will enforce international law?

We should not kid ourselves, therefore, that bringing the disputes in the West Philippine Sea to an arbitral tribunal will cause the main issue to go away: China has risen, and beyond the territorial disputes, we have to deal with its claim to regional leadership and do our best to ensure the Philippines’ security when China flexes its considerable power.

National interest

Which brings us back to our basic problem: What do we Filipinos really consider as our national interest? Philippine foreign policy is an expression of our national interest and we should therefore be clear about what our national interest really is. Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, in a 2012 statement, believes that the roots of our foreign policy can be found in our democratic values as a people. He states that “It is our values and principles as a people that define our national interest.”

Our national interest is clearly the protection and preservation of our values and principles as a people. This should be the start of our understanding of our basic foreign policy problems, including our current impasse with China.

Anyone who has listened to or read the statements that come from former national security adviser, Jose Almonte, will know that our long-term security is only possible if we are able to transcend our parochial interests and truly start the process of consolidating our nation-state. This means that we need to consolidate our democracy, end our internal conflicts, and ensure that political power is in the hands of the many and not in the hands of the elite few.

Some may argue that these are long-term reforms, but when will we start? It has been more than 20 years since the EDSA I revolution, and more than a hundred years since we declared our independence from Spain but we still have not come to grips with the issue of weak national material and ideational infrastructures. For our foreign policy therefore to be able to protect us from all external challenges, whether political or economic in nature, we have to start working as one people who are clear what our national interests are.

Which brings us back to what I contend is the real premise behind our issue with China. If observers contend that, as a country with no considerable power in the international system, the Philippines has no choice but to behave according to Chinese dictates, we have to assert that we are only seeking to protect those values that define our being Filipino, which Secretary Del Rosario identified as “principles of democracy, human rights, good governance, and the rule of law.” And if we are called naïve because we believe that these values are also the values that humanity should be upholding in this era of globalization and interconnectedness, then let it be so.

As we face an international environment that is continuously in flux, Filipinos have to be firm in holding on to our values that speak of a future that is not a product of a global system of pure power politics, but one of responsibility and non-indifference to the plight of our fellow global citizens. But this should start with us as well, that we cannot be indifferent to the suffering of our fellow Filipinos nor can we disassociate ourselves from the difficult task of nation-building and democratic consolidation.

As Almonte reminds us, “Those who sacrificed and died for us and for Filipino generations yet to come will never forgive us if we fail to summon the courage and the will to take the radical steps toward our future.” This China “problem” therefore should serve as a challenge to us to find how we as a people can work together to resolve an issue that matters to all of us who proudly call ourselves Filipinos. – Rappler.com


Julio Amador III is currently a graduate student specializing on foreign policy at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University. The opinions expressed on this commentary belong to him alone and do not represent the views of the institutions that he is affiliated with.


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