By Conor Cronin & Norashiqin Toh —
On May 9, voters in the Philippines will head to the polls to pick a new president. Outgoing president Benigno Aquino III leaves his successor with a nation hoping to balance economic ties to its Asian neighbors against security concerns that threaten the Philippines’ sovereignty.
Q1: Who are the leading presidential candidates?
A1: Just under six weeks out, the race remains difficult to predict. A Social Weather Stations survey released on March 14 showed the following support:
Senator Grace Poe: 27 percent
Vice President Jejomar Binay: 24 percent
Former interior secretary Mar Roxas: 22 percent
Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte 21 percent
It should be noted that the poll was conducted before the Supreme Court formally dismissed legal challenges to Poe’s candidacy, a result which could give a healthy bump to Poe’s numbers.
Q2: What are the key issues in the campaign?
A2: Unusual for an election in the Philippines, foreign policy and national security are high on the list of issues for voters. One of the key topics is relations with China.
Ties with Beijing have come under increasing strain over the South China Sea territorial dispute. Manila’s decision to take the dispute to an international court has met icy dismissal from Beijing, while Chinese occupation of disputed reefs and routine harassment of Philippine fishing vessels have infuriated the Philippine public.
But good relations with China, the Philippines’ largest importer and third largest market for exports in 2014, are critical for the Philippine economy. President Benigno Aquino in December 2015 joined China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank at the eleventh hour because of the Philippines’ need to refurbish its overburdened transportation infrastructure.
Binay and Duterte both say they would pursue warmer relations with China. Duterte has discussed holding bilateral talks with China over the South China Sea, and is open to joint exploration of resources. Binay underscored the economic drivers of the relationship last year, saying “China has money, we need capital.”
Roxas will likely continue the Aquino administration’s firm stance against China and push forward with the arbitration case. He also showed wariness toward the China-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Asia Pacific, warning that the Philippines needed “a clear understanding of how [to protect its] own interest.”
Poe falls somewhere in the middle. She supports the Philippine arbitration case against China in The Hague, but is open to further engagement with China. Poe said that China has been a long time trading partner of the Philippines, and pursuing economic, education and cultural ties with China will allow the countries to help each other.
Q3: What is the debate over relations with the United States?
A3: Duterte has been most critical of the U.S.-Philippine alliance, saying he leans closer to China than to the United States and does not believe that the United States would honor its Mutual Defense Treaty obligations if the Philippines were attacked. The relationship would also be complicated by U.S. distrust of Duterte, who has a questionable human rights record and has been linked to extrajudicial vigilante killings in Davao City.
Roxas has warned against getting caught between China and the United States, and said his priority would be to protect Philippine interests. As the administration’s standard bearer, however, he would likely continue Aquino’s close engagement with the United States.
Poe, who lived in the United States for more than a decade, has been accused by other candidates of being too American. In spite of her U.S. ties, Poe’s position on the United States is lukewarm. Like Duterte, she doubts the United States’ willingness to go to war for the Philippines. Although she opposed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to boost Philippines-U.S. military ties, this was seen as a procedural criticism of the EDCA avoiding Senate oversight rather than opposition to the agreement itself.
Similarly, Binay’s friendliness toward China may have raised eyebrows in Washington, but he firmly supported the EDCA, calling it an important pillar of the country’s regional security policy. None of the candidates are likely to abandon the alliance with the United States, but they may approach it with less gusto than Aquino.
Q4: What are the candidates’ main economic policies?
A4: Voters hope the next president will continue Aquino’s successful shepherding of the economy and tap into growing regional markets. The ASEAN Economic Community launched in December 2015 will lower barriers to trade among nations in Southeast Asia. Many Filipinos also hope to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) once new members are permitted, but lawmakers will first have to strike down constitutional provisions banning foreign companies from holding more than 40 percent equity in certain sectors. Reforming the 1987 Constitution is often met with wariness by skeptics who worry the process will open the door to other political revisions.
Among the candidates, however, only Roxas has expressed reluctance towards constitutional reform. Roxas said he would instead focus on sustaining economic growth by revitalizing key sectors such as manufacturing. In one of his few disagreements with Aquino, Roxas has balked at joining the TPP over concerns about the effects on Philippine agriculture.
Duterte, on the other hand, wants to overhaul the constitution entirely, with the goal of introducing a federal system of government in the Philippines. He wants to decentralize the economy and spread economic growth to other parts of the country. Duterte also pledged to ease the process of doing business in the Philippines, and will cut bureaucratic red tape that turns investors away.
Binay and Poe have both called for the amendment of the foreign ownership restrictions. Poe highlighted the country’s tight foreign direct investment (FDI) regulations, and said that reform is necessary given the changing economic landscape. Binay said the foreign ownership amendments would raise employment. He also said he would diversify the economy, attract more FDI, improve infrastructure and promote small and medium enterprises.
Q5: Where should the United States focus its engagement after Aquino?
A5: The alliance with the Philippines is a critical component of Washington’s Asia rebalance. By early 2017, both Manila and Washington will have new administrations. It is vital that the gains in the last six years of U.S.-Philippine relations be institutionalized to support the larger U.S. engagement with Asia.. The EDCA will play a key role in U.S.-Philippine security ties, and the United States will need to cooperate with the new Philippine government to implement it. One early area of engagement with the new administration will be coordinating a response to the arbitral tribunal’s decision, expected in late May 2016, to provide momentum to a conflict resolution process in the South China Sea.
The United States should continue to support the next administration in the Mindanao peace process. Battling the insurgency has drained a defense budget that Manila sorely needs to redirect to military modernization and external defense. Additionally, militant Islamist groups serve as an entry point for foreign extremists, raising the threat of terrorist cells in Southeast Asia. The United States should encourage the next Philippine president to make the peace process an early priority so both nations can focus on longer-term security issues.
On the economic front, the United States should seek to boost trade ties with the Philippines, especially as the latter continues to post one of the strongest growth rates in the region. U.S.-Philippine trade levels lag woefully behind other Southeast Asian nations. U.S. trade representatives should encourage the economic reforms that would allow greater foreign investment and eventual accession to the TPP.