The Manila Times : 'Friend to all, enemy to none' extremely hard to implement

By The Manila Times

CONSISTENT with his earlier statements during the campaign, President-elect Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr. said the Philippines would pursue an independent foreign policy. In essence, he explained that the country would be a friend to everyone and an enemy to no one. We agree with this policy, although implementing it may be more difficult than many might assume.

That policy statement is probably being scrutinized in Beijing, which has territorial disputes with the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries in the South China Sea, referred to locally as the West Philippine Sea (WPS). China's claim to the expansive maritime area is encapsulated by its so-called nine-dash line.

The Philippines, along with its neighbors and key allies, do not recognize that arbitrarily drawn line. Instead, they cite international maritime law, which says parts of what China claims actually belong to the Philippines and other claimants, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Mr. Marcos also mentioned the arbitral ruling by the tribunal in The Hague, which ruled that the Philippines has sovereignty over the parts of the WPS that it claims. Albert del Rosario, the Foreign Affairs secretary of then-President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino 3rd, welcomed that pronouncement from Mr. Marcos. The former secretary, along with many others who sided with the political rivals of the incoming president, had been frustrated by the incumbent government downplaying the arbitral ruling.

What Mr. del Rosario and others failed to appreciate, however, was President Rodrigo Duterte's intent to de-escalate tensions in the region. Mr. Aquino, who has since passed away, was antagonistic against Beijing and repeatedly refused any bilateral dialogue with China. That was a mistake, which the government at present had to remedy.

China did not participate in the arbitral proceedings, which is its right under international law. Instead, it insisted that pretty much all of the WPS belong to China as summed up by the nine-dash line. And from Beijing's perspective, the Philippines was acting out on behalf of its former colonial master, the United States, which articulates its interest in the region in the phrase "freedom of navigation." To China, though, that sounds more like containment.

Navigating independence

Recently, Mr. Marcos again said the Philippines should avoid getting caught between two competing giants. That is easier said than done. As Aristotle said, "A friend to all is a friend to none."

The Philippines cannot, and should not, try to please everyone. Mr. Marcos may have stirred the pot, so to speak, when he said he would not yield a square millimeter of Philippine territory. But he added that this would be done diplomatically.

He also said his government would continue communicating with China, carrying over President Duterte's policy. "We continue to discuss with them the conflicting claims that we have with China and that China has with other Asean members." Asean is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a regional bloc of 10 countries that includes the Philippines.

Mr. Marcos went on to say: "We need to continue having bilateral contact and communication with China. This is what I mentioned when I talked to President Xi [Jinping] when he called me to congratulate me on winning the elections. I said we have to continue to talk about this. This cannot be allowed to fester and to become more severe in terms of a problem between our two countries."

With that, it should be interesting to hear whom Mr. Marcos will appoint as his Foreign Affairs secretary. While the president is the chief architect of foreign policy, the secretary will be the point person in refuting the nine-dash line while keeping a healthy distance from the Americans pursuing their own interests.

So far, the Cabinet appointees named seem impressive, and we hope that the next head of the Department of Foreign Affairs will be of similar caliber. The task ahead is difficult, to say the least. As Winston Churchill said, "Diplomacy is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip."