Written by Amador IV Peleo.
In the 2016 Philippine electoral theatre, an international relations (IR) issue has proven to be a point of agreement for the candidate-players who are accustomed to gaining political acclaim through antagonistic behaviour over issues that are predominantly domestic in scope. The issue of life in the space where two world powers are quite literally willing to draw a line on the sand has been used by the presidential and vice-presidential candidates in their propaganda to rouse nationalist sentiment that, in principle, could result in votes on election day. Because of the national campaigns, the revulsion amongst the Philippine electorate for China as an illegal occupant of Philippine territories in the South China Sea is virtually unanimous, as is the belief that military and legal assistance from the United States related to the South China Sea territorial dispute is intended primarily to defend Philippine sovereignty. However effective the ‘China is our enemy, US is our friend’ argument may prove to be as a campaign slogan, the Philippine electorate may not be sufficiently aware that the outcome of this territorial dispute has less to do with the selection of particular government officials and more to do with the willingness of non-politicians to re-evaluate the place of their state in the global network of international relations.
Whatever importance Filipinos assign to the electoral process and the administrators that the process will eventually produce, their state apparatus is enmeshed in a web of international expectations, opportunities, crises and conflicts that are not directly resolvable through democratic mechanisms. The leaders produced by a Philippine election may reflect how the Philippine electorate was politically conditioned. However, all Filipino leaders eventually discover that the significance of the Philippines in the world is determined not so much by the ability of Filipino leaders to condition global perceptions about the Philippines. Rather, the key determinant is the willingness of Filipinos to meet, exceed, or alter the expectations placed upon their country by persons and societies to which Philippine electoral processes are largely irrelevant. Filipinos may elect their leaders democratically, but there are no electoral or other ‘democratic’ mechanisms to resolve the South China Sea territorial dispute on an international level. The governments of China or the US will neither settle the dispute on Philippine terms nor seek to reduce their efforts to gain hard power and soft power influence on Asia-Pacific affairs just because the Filipinos had a democratic national election.
The improvisation of the candidates over the South China Sea issue was to be expected in this election. The politically privileged in the Philippines are not averse to referring to the importance of foreign influences in determining socio-political activity in the Philippines. Moreover, discourse on foreign adversaries and allies bridges a gap that has emerged in this election between the ‘bobotante’ whose behaviour follow patterns of ‘unintelligent’ patronage politics and the ‘normal’ electorate that informs itself on the principal issues of governance. But whether or not Filipinos regard the national election as a contest of personalities or platforms, the conduct of the campaign appears to have conditioned the electorate to believe that desirable foreign policy outcomes are determined mainly, if not entirely, by the political will of successful candidates.
In the varied field of foreign policy and international relations, there appears to be only one course that Philippine politicians will be expected by its electorate to run – a close alignment with US interests in the Asia-Pacific. This alignment is indicated by a faith in the willingness of the US government to invoke its agreements with the Philippine government to deploy military forces in the South China Sea, as well as in the efforts of the American lawyers hired by the Philippine government to represent it in the hearings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. The portrayal of US influence as ubiquitous and significant is key, as most Filipinos are divided in their opinions towards China whilst being singularly concerned with the territorial dispute with China. Conversely, the portrayal of China as an ‘invader’ would be reinforced by the largely unfavourable view held against China in the US and in Japan, which is the Philippines’ largest trading partner and key US ally in Asia-Pacific security matters. To the Philippine electorate, the Philippine state is safe, and Philippine foreign policy is sound, because of a hegemonic ‘guarantee’.
The South China Sea dispute typifies the practice of Philippine foreign policy as the provision of an environment where the capabilities of the world’s ‘great powers’ may be demonstrated rather than questioned or counter-balanced. In the Philippines, any foreign policy-related decision is based on the adoption of ‘the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land’, which may be taken as an affirmation by Filipinos that the world’s non-Philippine lawmakers are primary determinants of governance in the Philippines. (This, of course, is contrary to the most basic principle in IR that relations amongst nation-states are fundamentally anarchic.) The territorial dispute that the Philippines has with Malaysia, as well as the ‘grey economy’ of undocumented transportation between both countries, may be quickly and decisively resolved. However, the Philippines government has conflated the issue of sovereign control over its southern borders with the eradication of Islamist terrorists and the mediation of relations between Islamised and Christianised people-groups, and has thereby drawn international attention to what could otherwise have been a limited bilateral issue.
The Philippine government has preferred to be equipped with surplus weapon systems, mostly from the US, rather than develop its own modest military industrial complex or promote a contract system through which local industries would provide most of the defence and security materiel for their own state. The claim that migrant workers are the Philippines’ ‘biggest exports’ may be factually disproved. However, the Philippine government appears to be content to allow the lucrative international labour market to determine the efforts at local job creation or the dependence of the Philippine economy on remittances from overseas workers. The widespread occurrence of the term ‘world class’ in government documents and the Philippine mass media in reference to the popularity of Filipino celebrities may indicate that even the value of Philippine socio-cultural influence is primarily assessed in terms of the acceptance and approval by non-Filipinos.
Ultimately, the conduct of a national election, like the operationalisation of foreign policy, is a re-affirmation of legalist regulation, institutionalised governance and the international structure of sovereign states in the current recognisable forms. Despite the emotive attachment of Filipinos to what they consider as a ‘chance for change’, the lists of issues and campaign promises of the candidates are neither assurances that the Philippines will indeed alter its ‘small state’ status nor programmes to dissuade Filipinos from seeking local and foreign ‘political patronage’. And although Filipinos may be pleased with the resolve of the candidates to legally and militarily confront China with US help, they may not be pleased to be reminded that the current structure of international relations that the candidates will inherit actually maintains the political, economic and socio-cultural imbalances in the Philippines. Then again, in the Philippines, IR scholars make for terrible politicians.
Amador IV Peleo received his PhD from the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England. He is currently a student at the Chinese Language Centre (CLC) of the National Sun Yat-Sen University (NSYSU) in Kaohsiung, Taiwan ROC. This article forms part of IAPS continuing coverage of the 2016 general election in the Philippines. Image credit: CC by Russian Government/News.