For spring 2015, The Diplomat presents “Diplomatic Access,” a series of exclusive interviews with ambassadors from the Asia-Pacific region. By talking to these diplomats, we’ll give readers a sense of each country’s perspective on various regional economic and security trends — from TPP to the Silk Road Economic Belt; from the South China Sea disputes to the Islamic State. Check out the whole series to date here.
In this interview, His Excellency Jose L. Cuisia, Jr., Ambassador of the Philippines to the U.S., discusses the South China Sea, U.S.-Philippines relations, and the Bangsamoro peace deal.
The Diplomat: From the Philippines’ perspective, what are the greatest threats to regional security?
Amb. Cuisia: From our perspective, the security threats facing the region include the tensions in the Korean peninsula, human trafficking and non-traditional threats such as cyber-terrorism and climate change.
In the case of the Philippines, the tensions in the South China Sea resulting from the actions taken by our northern neighbor is a major international issue. China has been undertaking massive reclamations in a number of reefs, such as the Johnson, McKennan, Hughes, Cuarteron and Gaven Reefs. China’s actions are advancing its nine-dash line position, which is an expansive claim in contravention of both the 2002 ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and the United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea. China’s unilateral activities are not contributing to the de-escalation of tensions in the region.
What are the best ways of addressing these threats?
In the case of the tensions in the Korean Peninsula, there’s not much that the Philippines can do about it.
We are looking to the major powers to try to settle this issue. In terms of human trafficking, we have undertaken quite a number of measures to ensure that we guard against such a threat by enacting laws that protect our children and women. On cyber-terrorism, we are closely working with the United States in confronting this threat. For climate change, we expect the major countries like the U.S. and China to exert more efforts in addressing this global challenge.
When it comes to the maritime dispute, we have attempted to resolve the matter through diplomatic means many times but we have not been successful. This is the reason we decided to bring the matter before the Arbitral Tribunal in accordance with UNCLOS. What we want is a fair, peaceful and durable solution to this problem.
That case will continue to move forward this year, with oral arguments in July. What does the Philippines hope to gain from this case?
We hope to receive a favorable decision from the Arbitral Tribunal that will direct China to respect our sovereign rights over our Exclusive Economic Zone, continental shelf, contiguous zone and territorial sea in the West Philippine Sea in accordance with international law, especially UNCLOS. We hope that this will result in the clarification of our maritime entitlements. Beyond that, we hope that we can move forward in further enhancing our relations with China.
The Philippines will host the APEC summit later this year. Does Manila have any specific goals for what it wants to accomplish as the APEC host?
The Philippines will be hosting APEC for the second time since our hosting in 1996. Among our goals as host of APEC 2015 are accelerating regional economic integration within the Asia-Pacific countries; promoting human capital development; improving the regulatory environment; strengthening economic and technical cooperation; advancing resilience and sustainability; and mainstreaming small, micro, and medium-scale enterprises. We look forward to working together with other member economies to ensure a successful summit in November.
It’s been almost a year since the U.S. and the Philippines signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. What progress has been made under the new agreement, and what issues still need to be worked out?
The agreement, which we also call EDCA, was signed shortly before the visit of President Barack Obama to the Philippines in April of last year. We believe this agreement, which was the outcome of almost a year of negotiations, will strengthen further the relationship between Manila and Washington. We are convinced this agreement will enhance our maritime security and our maritime domain awareness and at the same time enhance the inter-operability between our two militaries. It will also enable us to accelerate the modernization of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
The EDCA will also enable the U.S. to strengthen its forward deployment capabilities in Asia by allowing the prepositioning of supplies, equipment and even personnel. The agreement would allow the U.S. to provide humanitarian assistance in the event of natural calamities. We believe that this agreement will provide mutual benefits to both our countries.
Shortly after the EDCA was signed, some cause-oriented groups who question the constitutionality of the agreement or who are not convinced of its merits filed a suit before our Supreme Court. The High Tribunal had already heard the arguments. I am hopeful that after the Supreme Court deliberates on the case, the mutuality of benefits that is characteristic of the agreement will be brought to fore and a favorable ruling will be made on the constitutionality of the accord.
Last year, Manila reached a breakthrough agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. What does that mean for the Philippines as a country?
After so many decades of conflict, we were finally able to forge an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This is indeed a major accomplishment of President Aquino. We believe that this agreement will lead to a new era where peace and development can reign in Mindanao.
The next step after the signing of the peace agreement is the passage by Congress of a basic law that would create the Bangsamoro entity. We hope this will happen by the end of this year. This will then go through a plebiscite that will be conducted in May 2016. We hope to get the people to ratify this law. The culmination of the peace process will provide the Government and the private sector the opportunity to focus on initiatives that will maximize the potentials of Mindanao, the largest island of the Philippines. Peace is the missing link to harness the full potential of Mindanao and to achieve economic development and inclusive growth in the entire country.