Washington has been stepping up actions against Moscow, which launched “special military operations” in Ukraine in late February that the United Nations and western states have described as an unprovoked invasion.
While the conflict has been raging in Eastern Europe for over a month, Washington has been trying to build a global alliance to stop the war in Ukraine by calling on its allies across the world to support sanctions against Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
It has warned China not to support its neighbor by supplying it with armaments, but stopped short of asking Beijing not to trade with Moscow.
Washington’s call for sanctions could be problematic. It has not asked India to stop economic engagements with Russia. Moscow and New Delhi have long-standing military cooperation in both weapons development and supplies.
In fact, the batteries of the advanced Brahmos shore-to-ship missile system which the Philippines ordered from India were jointly developed by New Delhi and Moscow.
The United States does not want to irritate India, which it considers a major partner in checking China’s rapid expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. India is part of the Quad security mechanism along with Australia, Japan, and the United States.
But the United States can bully smaller and weaker countries to go along with its plan to isolate not only Russia because of its aggression in Ukraine but also China because of its creeping influence in the region.
Sometimes, the Philippines’ national security interests do not intersect with the United States’ interests and in the past Manila did not side with Washington on its global security agenda.
For instance, the Philippines did not support the United States’ punitive actions on Libya under its former leader, Col. Moammar Khaddafy. At that time, it did not vote on United Nations resolutions to impose sanctions on Libya.
It is in the country’s interest to remain friends with Muslim states such as Libya, which played a key role in ending the bloody conflict in the south in the mid-1970s.
Libya, Saudi Arabia, and majority of the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) brokered peace talks and a ceasefire with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Moreover, Muslim countries in the Middle East host millions of Filipino migrant workers, and the country’s oil supply comes from the region as well.
Philippine presidents, from dictator Ferdinand Marcos to Rodrigo Duterte, displayed brinkmanship in dealing with US efforts to force allies to support its actions in Libya and in the Middle East.
The Philippines was rewarded by the United States when it supported the war on terror in the early 2000s. Manila sent a token 50-man contingent to Iraq under Brig. Gen. Jovito Palparan.
But it was quickly punished when then-president Gloria Arroyo pulled out the soldiers after a Filipino driver was kidnapped by Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah.
The Philippines has demonstrated it can say NO to the United States when its own interests are at stake. It can choose its battles even if it has an obligation under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).
The MDT does not automatically bind both Manila and Washington to work together in conflicts in the region and elsewhere.
The US Congress, for instance, has to vote to help the Philippines if it is under attack by a foreign aggressor. The Philippine Congress also has to vote if the country will enter into a war.
The MDT serves a purpose. It is only for the defense of the country although each country can invoke the treaty in an event either of the two countries came under attack.
In the case of China’s escalating activities in the South China Sea, the Philippines can support the United States’ actions in the region but it should avoid getting dragged into a conflict where the country has no interests.
Like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), it is in Philippines interest to keep tensions in the South China Sea low and promote more trade and cooperation among countries in the region, including extraregional powers like Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States.
Asean, including the Philippines, should resist any attempt by both the United States and China to polarize the region, which could cause a breakup of the regional bloc.
Washington’s Indo-Pacific strategy could divide Asean as it attempts to expand the Quad mechanism to include Asean states.
The Indo-Pacific strategy is not only security-oriented as the United States ramps up military spending to improve its offensive and defensive capabilities. Its economic component is meant to compete with the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in the region.
It could lead to a head-on collision between the United States and China, and smaller states like the Philippines could be caught in the middle of competing superpowers.
It is best for the Philippines to stick to its own national interest. Anyway, other Asean states are doing the same. It is difficult to find consensus if the national interest of a country is at stake.
In deciding what is best for the country, the government must always be guided by the national interest.
But other countries are confused with Philippine foreign policy because of conflicting positions on issues like the West Philippine Sea and the conflict in Ukraine.
The Department of Foreign Affairs voted to support the United Nations’ resolution condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine but President Duterte also announced the country would remain neutral in the conflict.
On many occasions, Duterte praised China and vowed to be less combative on issues like the South China Sea, but the foreign affairs would always have a stronger sentiment against Beijing.
The Philippines has lesser problems if Duterte reads DFA prepared statements in international fora, like the UN and Asean.
But it becomes confusing when Duterte makes off-the-cuff remarks, particularly on relations with China and Russia.
Hopefully, the next administration will have a more harmonious position on China, Russia and the South China Sea to reduce confusion.
The foreign affairs department has been consistent on its three pillars of foreign policy. Hopefully, the next president and the foreign affairs department would avoid conflicting positions and remain consistent with the national interest.