A robust foreign policy for the "trade war" age

Philippines Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin speaking before an international body (PTV Photo)


I Believe the true test of an independent foreign policy is when it can speak freely when it needs to assert its position.

To a certain extent, two men achieved it last week at the Unted Nations General Assembly.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that “a rules-based multilateral system is still “far preferable” to any other way of securing peace and prosperity and to solve global problems, although it needs updating and is “far from” working perfectly.

There is a need for updated rules, for digital services and intellectual property for instance, in multilateral institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), he said.


He talks about other multilateral institutions such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and other bodies that need to be inclusive- all meant to keep global trade robust in the wake of the trade war, global growth is headed for a slight slowdown.

Such a position is pragmatic and purposeful, as it highlights a country’s position clearly- something that countries need to do more often in light of overshadowing global realities such as the US China “trade war.” and climate change that will have an effect on many.

Another position taken is that of Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who stressed the need for multilateral institutions to better understand migration issues.

For decades, the global face of the Philippines is essentially that of an economic migrant, a talented and skilled worker seeking employment and opportunity. In recent years, however, this has been slowly replaced with global investors from the Philippines, acquiring international assets and brands  

Time was when our diplomats and negotiators would merely try to join clubs of allies – normally the West, in asserting a policy that would often rally other nations towards its foreign policy positions. This was seen as the comfort zone of smaller countries.

But the rapid pace of change in many global issues and the impacts they bear on us require a foreign policy that is flexible and able to capitalize on the opportunities brought about by change.  This flexibility is an imperative for smaller countries which are not superpowers, and upon whom the consequences and effects of global realities tend to fall. This requires a policy flexible, and agile, and more grounded: the qualities of a robust and independent foreign policy.

Thus the need for a new multilateralism that is defined as working together with countries who share common interests, borders, even conflicting concerns, since these relations tend to be complicated and where the relationships build on mutual benefit. A cardinal rule in real diplomacy is the ability to focus on the bonds that we can embrace rather than the stops that tend to weaken our ties. Multilateral engagements help smoothen these out.

We have been largely able to do that with our neighbors Vietnam, Taiwan Malaysia and Brunei, who all have claims on islands within our exclusive economic zone. Malaysia in particular due to our claim on Sabah. In the end, out of the ten things that matter in our bilateral relations, the nine that work well should not be overshadowed, or threatened by the one thing upon which we disagree.

That said, the United States trade war with China is the biggest threat to multilateralism. It declared a unilateral trade war to challenge Chinas trade surplus with the United States. By imposing its tariffs directly on China, the United States disregards mechanisms under the WTO to collectively deal with trade disputes. On the other hand, it slapped tariffs on the European union after going through the WTO process. Cherry picking its approaches to managing trade relations does not bode well for multilateral bodies and processes like the WTO.  

The trade war and the unilateral imposition will break multilateral processes and weaken international cooperation. We have yet to see its full effect, the implications are not promising.