Over the past few weeks, the world has returned to an angry 19th century-like geopolitics. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine attests to the seismic shift from a relatively stable security environment to one that is increasingly volatile. The United Nations Security Council failed to secure a resolution condemning Russian actions due to Moscow’s veto, though the U.N. General Assembly managed to produce one deploring the invasion. The United States and its NATO allies are on high alert with a possible nuclear option being mooted by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainians are fighting back hard with economic, humanitarian, and military support from the international community.
While China and Russia are not treaty allies, they have engaged in a “convergence of convenience” since the end of the Cold War, aimed at undermining U.S. liberal hegemonic leadership. China may have abstained from condemning Russian military operations in Ukraine, but its Foreign Ministry has nonetheless been consistent in asserting that it understands Russia’s security concerns, particularly with regard to NATO’s eastward expansion since the 1990s, just as the U.S. has established military-diplomatic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific region at its own expense. There is no question now that China could also take advantage of the security crisis in Eastern Europe, despite its vehement denial, and that this could offer a window of opportunity for Beijing to advance its interests on the questions of Taiwan and the South China Sea.
Commentaries have suggested that China is unhappy with Russian actions, but this can best be seen as a tactical maneuver at the diplomatic level. Leaked information circulating in the media suggests that China asked Russia to delay the invasion until after the Winter Olympics. Hence, it is safe to say now that though Russia and China may disagree at a tactical level, both essentially want the same thing: a revision to the international rules-based order. It is a matter not of can but of when and how this Moscow-Beijing “axis” coalesces.
For the Philippine security community, it is imperative to look at such dynamics at the systemic level. Philippine strategic culture for a long time has been deferential to the U.S. security umbrella, which has contributed to the complacency of the country’s political elites in being proactive on issues of war and peace. The policymaking elite has simply become reactive to whatever the international system feeds them, thinking that peace is simplistically linear and neutral, and can thus be achieved at all costs and without tradeoffs.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), for example, has rapidly declined in terms of assets and other material capabilities since the 1980s, particularly in the navy and air force. Although military modernization efforts undertaken in the 2010s by both the Aquino and Duterte administrations are to be applauded, much work is still needed to upgrade assets for warfighting and improve the organization’s strategic culture. One challenge is the need to address the susceptibility of military personnel to misinformation and disinformation, which worsen their ability to see through the fog of war. At the end of the day, victory in wars happen when states take serious attention to force employment, which connotes thinking about the use of forces against whom and where. However, this cannot be done without having a good deal of information about the strategic environment and possible adversaries.
This is where strategic intelligence comes in, or the need to understand adversaries intentions and capabilities. The National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), the country’s primary intelligence gathering and analysis arm, has been bogged down in internal security efforts against various insurgent groups. Although it can be noted that NICA has been doing its best to function, much is unknown about its efforts in foreign intelligence collection and analysis at the strategic level. One can also note NICA’s controversy in recent years when its director-general unwittingly contributed to dis/misinformation by frequently sharing unverified news articles on Facebook that indiscriminately labeled various progressive groups as terrorist groups. Simply neglecting to institutionalize professionalism and public accountability would not only erode public trust, but also weaken intelligence community as a vital tool of statecraft in the long run. Yet another evidence of institutional weakness was the strategic surprise and intelligence failure during the Islamic State-inspired siege of Marawi in 2017. As one Filipino analyst notes, when a state has a weak military capability, intelligence should be the first line of defense.
Of course, intelligence collection is not always necessarily done covertly. It can also be done overtly by diplomats. there is no question that the Philippine diplomatic corps is a highly professional community. Yet, like the military and intelligence agencies, diplomacy is also an instrument of statecraft. While Philippine foreign policy suggests that Manila is to pursue an independent foreign policy, meaning being friends to all and enemies to none, one has to distinguish the ideal from the real. The real world of strategic affairs is governed by a paradoxical logic, that if one wants peace one has to prepare for war. As Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. remarked in 2018, Manila should be “friends to friends, enemies to enemies, worse enemies to false friends.” While representation and negotiation are functions of diplomats, being a repository of vital information to their capitals is too.
In this regard, it has to be recognized that diplomacy is a Janus-faced creature. While the Philippines must maintain diplomatic channels open, it has to make tough decisions about whether the other party should be designated as an adversary or otherwise. This is particularly important in the wake of a Duterte administration that gave rise to the concept of Philippinedization, which is defined as “the process whereby a weaker state, backed by a powerful country, goes through great lengths in temporarily refraining from opposing a neighboring great power by resorting to economic and diplomatic rapprochements at the strategic level but strengthening its national security infrastructure on the operational level with an eye for potential conflict in the foreseeable future.”
All of this suggests the need for the Philippines to move promptly from a reactive to a proactive strategic policy to address the concerns arising from the possible solidification of a Moscow-Beijing “axis.” Assessing this would require a political leadership that grasps realpolitik and is able to properly orchestrate its military (and paramilitary), diplomacy, and intelligence community, not to mention its economy, to secure sharply defined national security objectives. It implies the improvement and synchronization of critical documents such as the National Security Policy and National Security Strategy that recognize the likely longevity of the current strategic instability. If anything, the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war indicates that the 21st century has brought us not to the end of history but has instead revived old historical cycles.