Presidential poll opportunity for Philippines to reconsider policies

What stance will the Philippines take amid the deepening confrontation between the United States and China? This will be a major point of contention in the presidential election campaign, along with the restoration of the country’s damaged democratic system.

The filing of certificates of candidacy for the presidential election to be held in May next year in the Philippines has closed, and the composition of the election battle has been set. Leading candidates are divided over whether they approve or disapprove of President Rodrigo Duterte’s conciliatory policies toward China and his coercive approach to governance.

Former Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late President Ferdinand Marcos — who ruled the country in a long-term dictatorship in the 1960s through 1980s — has views close to Duterte’s.

In contrast, Vice President Leni Robredo of the current administration and Sen. Manny Pacquiao, a former world boxing champion, are advocating a drastic change in policy.

The Philippines has been in a dispute with China over territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea. Following a lawsuit filed by the former administration of the late President Benigno Aquino, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague issued a ruling in 2016 that totally rejected China’s unilateral sovereignty claim.

Duterte, however, has repeatedly made statements to shelve the ruling. In the disputed waters, there has been a series of provocative acts by Chinese vessels blocking the path of Philippine ships.

Duterte has tolerated China’s illegal acts such as these because he apparently prioritizes economic relations. Direct investment from China in the Philippines is more than 10 times the level it was during the previous administration, and Beijing is showing an overwhelming presence.

In addition, the weakening of the traditional alliance with the United States is cause for concern. Duterte once notified the United States that he was terminating the Visiting Forces Agreement in protest to criticism from the Washington on human rights issues.

The United States established a new security cooperation framework known as AUKUS with Britain and Australia this year, probably a sign that Washington sees Canberra as more important than Manila as a partner to maintain regional stability.

What role can the Philippines play in the realization of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” that Japan and the United States are promoting? Each candidate in the presidential race should engage in an in-depth discussion.

Regarding domestic policies, the focus will be on the evaluation of Duterte’s extrajudicial killings of suspects who resist among the measures he has taken in his war on drugs. Thousands of people have been killed in the crackdown. The International Criminal Court has decided to open an investigation on suspicion of crimes against humanity.

Pressure on the media critical of the administration has also increased.

When the Marcos dictatorship was overthrown by an uprising known as the People Power Revolution, the Philippines at the time was the nation leading the way for democratization in Asia. The presidential election must serve as an opportunity to restore democracy and human rights in the country.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 28, 2021.