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Pulse Asia: Few Filipinos care, know about foreign policy

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, fourth from left, shakes hands with Russia's Rear Adm. Eduard Mikhailov, third from left, at the anti-submarine navy ship Admiral Tributs at the south pier in Manila, Philippines. A flurry of goodwill visits by ships and submarines has marked the new year in the South China Sea. Noel Celis/Pool Photo via AP, File

MANILA, Philippines — Only six percent of Filipinos consider defending Philippine territory against foreigners one of the most urgent issues in the country, the latest Pulse Asia survey suggests.

Pulse Asia Research Director Ana Maria Tabunda said that the survey result reflects the fact that foreign policy issues are not "close to the gut" for Filipinos as there are more pressing concerns.

University of the Philippines Institute on Maritime Affairs and the Law of the Sea Director Jay Batongbacal, meanwhile, said that there was no effort on the part of the government to raise awareness on the disputed West Philippines from the 1970s until the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III.

In 2014, the Philippine government filed an arbitration case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration against China's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea,  part of which is called the West Philippine Sea.

It was only during the Aquino administration that the Department of Foreign Affairs engaged media organizations and raised public opinion on the issue.

"In 2014, there was a focus in government effort to raise discourse and public awareness... It was really a show of support for the arbitration," Batongbacal said in a press briefing after the release of the survey results at Fairmont Hotel in Makati City.

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Crime, poverty bigger issues for Pinoys

The survey, conducted from Dec. 6 to 11, 2016, found that increasing the pay of workers, controlling inflation, fighting criminality and reducing poverty are among the most urgent national issues that the government must address.

De La Salle University Professor Renato De Castro noted that Filipinos are only aware of foreign policy when the country is facing a crisis.

"Usually, academics and those who make public opinion, journalists would have a more cohesive understanding of foreign policy issue, not the ordinary people," De Castro said.

De Castro cited the assistance that the US provides to the Philippines as an example. He noted that Filipinos only became aware of the partnership after supertyphoon Yolanda (international name Haiyan) struck the country in 2013.

"People have little understanding of the issue," De Castro said, adding that this case not only occurs in the Philippines but also around the world.

"Generally, ordinary people are concerned on what's happening in the domestic sphere," De Castro added.

Independent foreign policy

The DLSU professor also noted that the Duterte administration has not been able to explain to the people why it is conducting a shift to a so-called independent foreign policy.

Tabunda also noted that there is a "disconnect" between President Rodrigo Duterte's foreign policy actions and on public opinion.

On the other hand, Batongbacal noted that Duterte cannot be held accountable for his foreign policy as it is the president's prerogative under the 1987 Constitution.

The public cannot contest the foreign policy of the president, unlike in the United States where the Senate has a mechanism for counteracting the chief executive.

"This lack of accountability for foreign policy, for example, actually contributes to these wild swings in stability of foreign policy in the country because it really depends on personal inclinations of the chief executive and how he directs foreign policy," Batongbacal said.

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