Written by Ananda Devi Domingo-Almase.

Ideas and interests constitute the substance of a national security policy. They clarify the core values and strategic goals of a state in relation to its volatile, uncertain, and complex environment. They create norms of conduct and road maps towards a national vision of peace, progress, and security. Ideational constructs influence policy with notions of ideal pathways that a sovereign entity must undertake, and conceptions of proper roles that it must act out in the pursuit of national objectives.

In view of this, national security policy can be defined as a principled guide to action taken by a state to protect and promote its interests in a manner consistent with its belief systems aside from its material capabilities. A scholarly inquiry on particular idiographic accounts—such as roles and orientations—in the content of a national security policy can provide insights on state performance in national security administration and international relations.

In the 1970s, K.J. Holsti pioneered the development of national role conceptions by demonstrating how a country’s attitude, commitments, and perceptions of duties determine policy behaviour and strategic outcomes. Notably, the foreign policy analysis (FPA) literature has focused mostly on major powers’ role performances and their impact on the international system. For instance, the United States’ (US) self-declared role as world leader binds it to create international regimes through which it can protect national interests and provide public goods [e.g. liberal economic systems, democratic ideals, security alliances, development assistance]. China’s self-conception as emerging leader and big brother in Asia also enables the rising dragon to perform hegemonic functions in the region that rival those of the US.

Role theory frames a country’s self-image and expected roles on national and regional theatres in relation to its worldview and influential power. In the case of less developed states, the theoretical framework is also useful to understand how national roles relate to security policies, and how relations between these two variables are affected by leadership styles, domestic challenges, and limited international weight. An analysis of social constructs in the national security policy content of a developing country like the Philippines can elucidate the tapered range of parameters and possibilities on which decisions and actions on security matters are based. In this light, I endeavour to develop a research puzzle around the role conception and strategic orientation of the Philippines in the 2017-2022 National Security Policy of President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Considering the policy changes or choices of President Duterte, what is the role perception for the Filipino nation which is translated as a matter of principle in his national security policy? What are the sources of explanation for this role? How does this conceived role drive the strategic orientation and direction of the country during his term? In what ways are the role conceptions and the role conduct of the Philippines consistent and/or divergent?

Conceived Roles and Strategic Goals in the 2017-2022 National Security Policy

In his message in the 2017-2022 National Security Policy (NSP), President Duterte made reference to the constitutional mandate to “serve and protect the people” as the basis for directing the formulation of the NSP. The latter, as he said, embodies efforts to address threats to national survival and well-being—foremost of which is to end lawless violence, rampant criminality, and armed insurgencies. Second to this is to adopt to the challenges of regional integration through capacity building and human capital development. Lastly, President Duterte stated that the NSP aims to promote an independent foreign policy in concordance with international law and Filipino national values.

The President’s focal points emanate from perceptions of threats and challenges in the security environment, and from notions of national interests that must be protected and enhanced. In a domestic environment where lawlessness and armed conflicts are seen as existential threats, the role of the state as the protector of the people is most warranted. Thus, the NSP takes public safety, law and order, and the administration of justice as the first and foremost national interest. Linked to this are the strategic objectives of launching holistic programs to fight illegal drugs, criminality, terrorism, and corruption; and to reform law enforcement, the courts, and correctional institutions.

As a foreign policy, the NSP is explicit about the self-image and role of the Filipino nation as a “strategic partner of the international community.” The NSP explicates that Philippine security is best enhanced though cordial relations and cooperation with all countries. The Filipino worldview takes external security challenges [i.e. maritime domain issues in the South China Sea (SCS), power players in the region, global economic uncertainties, welfare of overseas Filipino workers, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and climate change] as opportunities to strengthen bilateral and multilateral relations with allies and partners. There are also prospects to develop new partnerships on various areas of development, and promote institutional mechanisms for peaceful resolution of conflict.

Role Performance in the Strategic Setting 

Prominent in the strategic challenges in the NSP is the concern over territorial issues and good order in the SCS, following the July 2016 Arbitral Tribunal’s invalidation of China’s nine-dash line claims. As stated in the NSP, “The Philippines will tread with prudence on this complex and delicate issue and will carefully calibrate its diplomatic moves to avert the costly consequences of any potential outbreak of armed confrontations in the disputed sea region.”

The policy statement to constructively engage with China in the post arbitration scenario is consistent with the conduct of President Duterte. His diplomatic engagements and economic partnerships with China, along with his respect and recognition of China’s self-role and peaceful rise, has reaped huge economic benefits for the Philippines. In January 2018, President Duterte was reported to have allowed Beijing’s request for maritime scientific exploration in Philippine Rise, an action consistent with his conciliatory policy towards China.

Next to the SCS issue, the NSP acknowledges the US policy of rebalancing in Asia and enhanced defence cooperation with the Philippines. To quote from the NSP: “The US remains as the sole defense treaty ally of the Philippines. . . it is expected that the US will remain to be engaged; the Philippines will still seek to work closely with the US on a number of significant security and economic issues.”

The NSP’s recognition of the US’ role in regional security and its mutual defence treaty with the Philippines is congruent with its policy conduct. At the height of the Islamist militants’ siege of Marawi City in June 2017, US special troops provided intelligence, aerial surveillance, and other technical support to the Philippine military. In September 2017, the US announced its pledge of $15 million to help rebuild the embattled city in southern Philippines. It can be recalled that in 2016, President Duterte’s policy pronouncements had challenged the country’s historic alliance with the US when he had ordered the US forces to leave Mindanao, stop joint naval patrols with the Philippines in the SCS, and limit military exercises to humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR).

Despite variance in President Duterte’s policy behaviour, the national role conceptions of the Philippines as protector of the people, strategic partner, and independent foreign policy actor conform to the country’s role conduct in both domestic and strategic theatres. The need to act on these roles is driven by national interests, along with economic pragmatism, domestic political considerations, and security needs.

Just like in other small states, the Philippine security policy is reasonably oriented towards internal capacity-building, political legitimation, and national unification as foundation of national security. But like any other state actors, the country’s stability and/or survival depends on systemic drivers to which they respond through strategic policy choices available to it. Acting on its role and image as a “strategic partner of the international community,” the Philippines is expected to have cordial relations with all nations and carry out binding agreements with partners and allies. Notwithstanding its characteristic leadership traits, the state is socialised in regional and international institutions that seek to continue rather than change workable systems. Under this condition, the Philippines can best perform its role to protect the welfare and well-being of its people.

Ananda Devi Domingo-Almase, DPA is a Professor III at the National Defense College of the Philippines (NDCP) in the Department of National Defense (DND), and a Member of the National Security Committee of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations (PCFR). Image Credit: CC Wikimedia Commons.

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