By Herman Tiu Laurel
Laudable: PBBM asserts ASEAN centrality
By making his first state visits to the leading countries of ASEAN, Indonesia first and foremost followed by Singapore, President Bongbong Marcos Jr. acknowledged and saluted the centrality of the ASEAN. It is an important signal explaining the president’s foreign policy which will be articulated fully in the course of the next few months through such concrete deeds.
There is considerable degree of speculation and some confusion about the entirety of PBBM’s foreign policy direction, a great part of which is created by the impetuous public pronouncements, authorized or not by the president, and posturing of the Philippine ambassador to the United States Jose Manuel "Babe" del Gallego Romualdez.
The most recent public statements he made concerned the US military presence in the Philippines inside Philippine military bases under the EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) arrangement saying that the US will be allowed to the bases in case of conflict in Taiwan “if it is important for us, for our own security.”
Those statements of Ambassador Romualdez allowed American internet portal Yahoo to headline this, “Philippines to allow US access to military bases if China-Taiwan tensions escalate”. That set off many speculations about the Philippines and what is going on behind the Philippine diplomatic scenes with the Americans which US media is exploiting to the hilt.
ZOPFAN and SEANWFZ
Affirming ASEAN centrality also means Philippine support for two crucial ASEAN agreements: the Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) declaration and the Southeast Asian Nuclear-Weapons-Free Zone (SEANWFZ) treaty banning all presence of nuclear weapons in the region. These two agreements have implication on the Philippines’ dubious MDT (Mutual Defense Treaty) arrangements with the US.
The presence of US troops and supplies within the five designated Philippine military bases pose serious impediments to Philippine compliance with the two ASEAN agreements ensuring security, safety and peace of the region as the US have always as stated policy neither confirms nor denies the presence of nukes in their bases within bases and in their warships sailing to and from Philippine waters.
The Philippines’ position on the ASEAN-China Code of Conduct in the South China Sea is a major consideration, once signed by all parties the code will impact on Philippine with all the other claimant parties to the SCS disputes. ASEAN is a major presence and reality in Philippine foreign relations matters, and President BBM’s accordance of top priority to it is in the right place.
First announced visit
It was laudable that the first announced visit of PBBM was China, the “strongest partner” the president described which indeed has continued to be the most reliable and productive partner for the Philippines the past decade; but since then, PBBM has been silent on the dates and details of this visit. Some people are too impatient to hear developments on this matter.
It is good to be reminded that even the International Monetary Fund in 2019 acknowledged that China had replaced the US as “locomotive of the global economy” providing 28 percent of all growth worldwide in the five years from 2013 to 2018, and its all truer today than at that time as China is the only major economy to escape recession and continue its growth path despite headwinds from the Western economies’ hurricanes.
At the moment, there has been absolutely scant details about the president’s China trip, although the concrete actions taken to continue the “strategic cooperation” agreed upon in 2019 between President Rodrigo R. Duterte and President Xi Jinping of China is being visibly pushed by China such as the loans for the three major train projects and the Red Bank oil-gas joint venture.
UN General Assembly speech
PBBM is slated to speak at the UN General Assembly on Sept. 20, as well as bilateral meetings with heads of states particularly President Joe Biden of the US, again according to the Philippine ambassador to the US. In the Duterte administration, I recall that all such announcements emanated from the office of the presidential spokesman.
President BBM’s attendance at the UNGA is timely as it is wise to establish the presence of the new Philippine administration on the international stage at this moment of critical international crises and events. The Philippines' geostrategic situation plays an important role in the affairs of the world and PBBM must be ready to make the Philippines count in the evolution of world events.
There has been some discussion on whether its best for the president to do a virtual speech at the UNGA given the pressing challenges at home that need to be taken care of or the actual presence at the UNGA is imperative to make the impact that is necessary. That remains to be a judgment call of PBBM, in the end it is being heard and imparting the impression that the Philippines means to make itself felt in the world today.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the foregoing article are solely the author’s and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Philippine News Agency (PNA) or any other office under the Office of the Press Secretary.
About the Columnist
Herman Tiu Laurel is a veteran journalist and founder of think tank PHILIPPINE-BRICS Strategic Studies.