There were no surprises when Gilbert Teodoro returned to the Department of National Defense (DND) after almost a decade and a half.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr had some placeholders in the defense department as he waited for the one-year election ban to expire before he appointed Gibo to the position.

Everyone knew Gibo will be back in his old position but this time, he faces a much larger problem, both internally and externally.

The most urgent problem is how to sell to uniformed services a new pension fund system that will require soldiers to contribute about 5 percent of their monthly pay for a retirement fund similar to the government workers’ Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) or to the private sector’s Social Security System (SSS).

In the past, soldiers contribute 5 percent of their base pay to the Armed Forces of the Philippines Retirement and Separation Benefit System, a fund set up by former president Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s.

The only problem was the AFP-RSBS was managed by the military, which had no core competency in handling financial matters. As a result, the AFP RSBS collapsed.

There were some generals who handled the military finances well, like General Remy Tigulo when the AFP-RSBS was the barometer of financial investors during the late Marcos and early Cory Aquino years.

Teodoro will have to convince soldiers to contribute again to a retirement fund to unburden the government in funding a pension fund from the annual budget, which is already unsustainable.

Blame it on all former leaders who did not have the foresight to predict the eventual collapse of a pension fund system where the beneficiaries were not required to contribute.

But that would be the least of Teodoro’s concerns. His biggest headache actually is how to deal with China’s coercive actions in the South China Sea. It actually threatens the country’s security and territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Perhaps, Teodoro would not be able to resolve the maritime territorial dispute with China and four other neighbors in his lifetime.

However, he could find some ways to ease tensions in the disputed waters through diplomacy and improving defense relations with it neighbors, particularly with China which has become more assertive in its claims based on the repudiated nine-dash-line.

Although China did not participate and recognize the ruling made by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague on a case brought by the Philippines in 2013, it is still a landmark decision by an international court.

The Philippines found comfort that many countries around the world recognized the ruling and had been pushing China to respect and abide by the decision.

Teodoro is standing by the government’s policy that the Philippines will not give an inch of the country’s territory and sovereign rights to any country in the region.

But he made it clear that the Philippines would remain independent from any foreign influence in pursuing its national interests.

In his interviews days after the was named defense secretary, Teodoro said the Philippines would be a puppet to no one.

He said the Philippines would strive to develop its minimum credible defense capability, dismissing impressions that the country has slid to the US sphere of influence as tensions in the region rose.

He said the Philippines can actually become a credible intermediary between two superpowers – the United States and China – to calm down tensions in the region.

Teodoro believes a conflict over Taiwan will be catastrophic not just to the region but to the world given the experiences in Ukraine.

Although the Philippines had granted the United States greater access to local bases, particularly those facing Taiwan, Teodoro will not allow the United States to use local bases as springboards to launch an offensive to any third country.

He said nine local bases under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) could only be used to help the Philippines deal with disasters and other humanitarian disasters.

He had made it clear that there would be no nuclear weapons and conventional missiles for offensive action to be deployed to the EDCA sites.

Teodoro also does not consider China as a potential threat.

“Our efforts to modernize our armed forces are not directed at any particular country,” he said.

“We will not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs. The Taiwan issue is a domestic issue in China. We will respect that and we will not in any way get into other countries’ increased defense spending because we also do not want them to meddle into our defense build up.”

He also disagreed with former president Rodrigo Duterte that the Philippines would be a magnet for attack because it had allowed more bases for the United States.

“If China trusts the Philippines, we have nothing to worry because we will not be any party to a conflict,” he said.

“The EDCA sites in the country will be used only for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief not only in the country but in other areas in the region. It should not be used for any offensive action.”

Teodoro’s assurances that the Philippines will stay neutral in a potential conflict in Taiwan won praise in Beijing.

Huang Xilian, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, paid him a courtesy visit early this month in Camp Aguinaldo to talk about bilateral security cooperation.

In the past, China transferred non-lethal military equipment and donated rifles during the five-month conflict in Marawi in 2017.

On the same day of Huang’s visit, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called up Teodoro to assure him of Washington’s “ironclad” support, and condemned China’s coercive actions in the South China Sea.

If the Philippines will play its cards well, it could take advantage of the keen interest shown by the Americans and the Chinese to develop the military’s minimum credible defense capability.

Like other Southeast Asian countries, the Philippines can enjoy both worlds as China and the United States compete with each other and try to win the country’s support.

Teodoro, a politician with a deep military background, is taking the right approach in balancing relations between the United States and China.

He might prove Duterte wrong.