Are the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL), Charter Change (ChaCha), political and institutional reform, and inclusive growth connected to China’s threat to our national sovereignty, and if so, how are they connected?
Yes, they are. They are all connected because they are about strengthening the nation-state to better defend the country’s national sovereignty and national security interests.
The BBL, for example, is designed to achieve peace with our Muslim brothers in the South, reduce poverty, hopelessness, and cultural imperialism that foster insurgency in the region, and allow our Armed Forces of the Philippines to repivot from battling insurgency toward external defense and security.
The BBL, therefore, is connected to the nation-state’s ability to defend its national sovereignty and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as much as the government’s legal case in the United Nations’ International Arbitral Tribunal. Because the country can’t really rely on external powers to defend its core interests, it must strengthen itself internally by healing economic, cultural, ethnic and class divisions to forge a united front against external threats. The BBL must be seen as a dot in the overall national strategy to strengthen ourselves against any external threat, from China or elsewhere.
Unfortunately, because of President Aquino’s asymmetric application of Daang Matuwid and his own mishandling of the Mamasapano operation, the BBL has become a victim of partisanship. Note that the most vocal opponents are Marcos loyalists. Senator Bongbong Marcos has said that he will substantially change the BBL, citing constitutional infirmities. Constitutional infirmities aside, passing the BBL is critical and must be seen as a dot in the overall strategy in standing up to China.
Charter Change to remove the foreign ownership restrictions in the Constitution is another dot.
Opening up the country to foreign investment will strengthen the nation-state as it had for China. Under Mao Zedong, China kept out foreigners and boasted of self-sufficiency (its Great Leap Forward to industrialize with backyard steel mills was a gigantic disaster.) It therefore remained poor and weak. Under Deng Xiaoping, China welcomed foreigners, so much so that it became the biggest recipient of foreign investment outside of the United States. China is now so strong economically and militarily that it dares to claim the entire South China Sea.
As I said before, removing constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership is a national security issue. Getting more foreign direct investments into the country means that foreign countries will have an increased economic stake in upholding freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Also, foreign investors are needed to build and operate, and provide competition, in strategically important, capital-intensive sectors such as airports, ports, shipping and telecommunications. Currently, our outdated Constitution prohibits foreigners from doing so.
Moreover, removing foreign ownership limits in the Constitution is a prerequisite for us to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which Vietnam and Malaysia have already joined. We will be isolated economically if we don’t join. The TPP is the foundation of the United States’ rebalancing toward Asia, and it would be odd and stupid for us to be strengthening our military alliance with the US but disdaining an economic alliance with the US, Japan and their Pacific allies.
Again, unfortunately, lacking strategic vision, President Aquino opposes ChaCha and removing these foreign ownership restrictions, which only benefit the local oligarchy. Malacañang even reportedly torpedoed the move of Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr. to pass ChaCha last month.
Achieving inclusive growth is another dot. Poverty is a national security issue. If the majority of the population is ill-housed, ill-fed and ill-educated, the nation state will remain weak. The nation-state cannot stand up to China if hunger stalks the land, and insurgency and class conflict weaken our national unity.
However, our recent economic growth, impressive as it is compared to the past, has hardly made a dent on poverty, joblessness and hunger. It has been primarily consumption-led — that is, powered by overseas foreign workers remittances — rather than investment. The next government must go beyond the Conditional Cash Transfer program to attack poverty.
Political reform is another big dot if we are to stand up to China. You can’t expect people to fight for an unequal society. If there are only a few families controlling political and economic power, national solidarity will be much harder to achieve. If power is wielded only by a few for the benefit of their respective families, what loyalty can the state expect of its citizens? Why pay taxes and or even die for a few families?
Institutional reform to improve state capacity, particularly in the deliverance of basic services, should be part of an overall strategy in standing up to China, as much as modernizing the armed forces is. Currently, state capacity is a joke. It takes the Social Security System six months to deliver an ID and the Land Transportation Office six months to deliver a driver’s license card — and in the case of car plates, seemingly forever. Can you imagine if the nation is invaded, would the government be even able to put gasoline in its tanks?
But then institutional reform is related to political reform. If there’s no accountability, ifkaklase, kabarkada and kapartido are absolved of any wrongdoing while only the political opposition is tarred and feathered, you will never get public officials (and the bureaucracy, which knows it’s only a game of “weather-weather lang”) to behave.
On a macro level, weak state capacity is proving to be an obstacle to economic growth. Government underspending is causing economic growth to falter.
The agenda for the next President is clear: strengthen the state, unify the country, combat poverty, solve political and economic inequality, protect national security, and assert national sovereignty. In other words, connect the dots!
Calixto V. Chikiamco is a board director of the Institute for Development and Econometric Analysis.