The Philippines welcomes United States President Barack Obama’s state visit this week. Given the present circumstances, our country continues to place importance on its alliance with the United States. At the same time, the Philippines is aware that such relationship is creating or indirectly adding tension with or even suspicions by China, which is now considered as just below the U.S. in the current international hierarchy of the major powers.
Major powers are states which have the ability to exert influence on a global scale. They have superior power in terms of overall military, economic, and political capacity. They would like to think that they are entitled to geographic spheres of influence. Their relative power tends to shape, maintain and alter their behavior.
Despite being recognized and conferred responsibility to maintain international peace and security by international bodies, like the United Nations Security Council and its predecessor, the League of Nations Council, major power themselves compete in an unstable equilibrium of the balance of power.
The state of relations among these major powers affects their other bilateral relations. If the state of a relationship between say two major powers is bumpy, their respective allies can expect rough drives from the competitor major power. That is the crux of the matter in this world of economic and security interconnections and interdependence.
That is why it is important for the major powers to have positive relations among themselves in order to eliminate or reduce complications in their respective bilateral relations with smaller states. For instance, the triangular relations among the United States, China and Japan affect other countries in the Asia Pacific. They should manage their differences within bounds to maintain stability in the region.
The reality is that despite the launch of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, former U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton admitted that fears and misperceptions lingered on both sides of the Pacific. She said that China represents one of the most challenging and consequential bilateral relationships the United States has ever had to manage.
While the larger states are at it, smaller states should individually and collectively use their smart power to deal with this reality. They should look for other sources of security and not least of these is their own national resilience to mitigate their vulnerability and dependence.
Another is the promotion of regional organizations and regional integration for purposes of self-help and group engagement with larger states.
It is with this broader picture in mind that the Philippines should continue to actively support the Asean Regional Forum or ARF initiated by ten Southeast Asian states, but participated in by 17 others, which remains the only multilateral institution devoted to the promotion of peace and security in the Asia Pacific region. The way to achieve this is by promoting regular dialogue, building mutual trust, and agreeing on certain norms and standards of behavior. The United States and China are members of the ARF.
But for ARF to be effective, individual ARF members should exert efforts to educate their respective domestic publics about these goals, instead of engaging in misinformation and diversions for domestic political gains. For example, many in China believe that the Philippines is doing what it is doing in the West Philippine Sea as a pawn of the United States for the purpose of embarrassing and harassing China.
At the same time, we should realize that, however indigenous they are, regional organizations are not immune from major power politics. Regional organizations cannot be equated with like-mindedness and unanimity. States behave taking into consideration their external relations with other countries, particularly larger states, with whom they have either beneficial or difficult relationship. This was what happened two years ago when Cambodia (a China ally) refused to issue an Asean joint communique that included reference to the Asean foreign ministers’ discussion on the West Philippines Sea.
In our regional and world systems where there are no central governments, our only hope is a system of rules, responsibilities, and collective and self-restraint that could form the basis of an international order. Security and defense cooperation we could have. But it should be pursued strictly for defensive and deterrence purposes, humanitarian missions including emergency search and rescue, as well as to counter non-traditional security issues, like piracy and armed robbery at sea.
In addition, regional institutions, supported by professional international civil servants, should be strengthened and made effective, not only in taking collective actions on behalf of the majority of its members, but also in its transformational role towards greater predisposition to pacific settlement of disputes.
The Philippine alliance with the United States should not prevent us from community building within East Asia whose future interconnects with that of China. We should manage our important alliance with the United States responsively, beyond the present context of disputes in the West Philippines Sea involving several countries including China. Our nation’s ability to maintain or diversify relations with others speaks well of the maturity and security of the Philippine-US alliance over the long term.
At the same time, on its own and with other like-minded states, the Philippines should always stand its ground for what is right, including protecting territorial rights and integrity based on international law. In a world gripped by realpolitik, the Philippines should be a moderating force against destructive power, ambition and greed.
Jun Abad is Senior Fellow of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies (ISDS) in the Philippines and former director of the ASEAN Regional Forum Unit at the ASEAN Headquarters in Jakarta. He is the author of “The Philippines in Asean: Reflections from the Listening Room.” The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations of his affiliation.