When I gave President Rodrigo Roa Duterte an “excellent” grade for his performance in his first year in office, it was not only because he hit the ground running instead of spending too much time in organizing his Cabinet or shuffling office. More than this, I was impressed by his prompt attention to the major challenges that greeted him on his first day as President of the Philippines.
Before the elections in May 2016, I was often asked about the biggest issues that the new administration would face. I listed five: the dispute with China over the Spratly Islands, peace and order, illegal drugs, the Muslim secessionist movement, and the communist insurgency.
President Duterte has confronted all of these issues during his first year in office. Among the five issues, I think his approach to the China dispute earned him the respect of other heads of states and, as an expert said, served as prescient for other countries in Southeast Asia.
His approach to the China issue involved a more comprehensive move. He declared the adoption of an independent foreign policy. As I explained in a previous column, an independent foreign policy is not a pro-US foreign policy or a pro-China foreign policy, but a pro-Filipino foreign policy. We can be friends with all countries because it serves our interest to do so.
Some people call it the pivot to China, but it is actually just expanding friendly diplomatic relations, which used to be heavily inclined (and dependent) on the United States, to other countries like China and Russia.
If the US and China, which are rivals in the global arena, can have strong economic ties, why can’t the Philippines and China?
In a BusinessMirror report published earlier this month, Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana said that instead of continuing the previous administration’s approach of making the dispute over the Spratly Islands at the center of bilateral relations, President Duterte decided on a two-pronged approach by putting the contentious issues on one track and the non-contentious issues on another track.
The contentious issues were sovereignty, maritime jurisdiction, China’s nine-dash line claim as well as the other claimants to West Philippine Sea, and the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration decision that favored the Philippines, but that China did not accept.
The two-pronged approach, according to Ambassador Sta. Romana, enabled both sides to improve relations in areas of common interest, like trade and investments. He added that because of the two-pronged approach, tension between the two countries eased, despite continuing differences on the Spratlys issue. Filipino fishermen, who were barred from fishing in the Scarborough Shoal, are now back to their traditional fishing grounds.
China also lifted the blockade to the military supply line to the contingent of Filipino soldiers stationed on a grounded ship in Ayungin Shoal, as well as the supply lines to Pag-asa and other features occupied by the Philippines.
Differences remain, but the two countries are now able to talk about them in an amicable and civil manner, according to Sta. Romana. At the same time, the Philippines and China continue to engage in a wide range of non-contentious issues – trade, economics, infrastructure, science, culture and the whole range of areas, which were “frozen in the past.”
Since President Duterte’s first official visit to China last year, we continue to see the benefits flowing into our economy. China has also provided assistance in fighting the Maute terrorists in Marawi and has joined the Philippines in the campaign against terrorism.
Under President Duterte’s approach, the Philippines maintains its claims over parts of the Spratly Islands while developing relations with China at the same time. Amid all these, Ambassador Sta. Romana pointed out that the Philippines has not lost an inch of territory.
In an online report titled “PRRD’s independent foreign policy benefits country – experts,” the magazine cited former ambassadors Jose Romero and Alberto Encomienda and economist George Siy as saying the “normalization of diplomatic ties and direct negotiations with China has not only boosted mutually beneficial win-win bilateral trade, economic and tourism exchanges, but also helped stabilize the Asian region and minimized tension.”
President Duerte’s innovative move in addressing the China issue puts him in the same league of world leaders. That is why I rate him “excellent” in his first year.
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