Articles - November 2018


An interview with Ambassador Jose Manuel Romualdez, Ambassador of the Philippines to the United States
By Michael D. Mosettig

Before Donald Trump, there was Rodrigo Duterte.

In May, 2016, the vocal populist was elected President of the Philippines, a nation of 105 million people sprawled across more than 7,000 Pacific islands. His election marked the beginning of a populist, nationalist wave that would soon roll to Europe and to the United States.

The mayor of Davao in the southern island of Mindanao has run second only to Trump in garnering international headlines, referring to President Obama in some of the most unfavorable ways in expletive terms as well as publicly berating Pope Francis for causing traffic jams in Manila.  And drawing particular attention is his war against drug dealers, which Human Rights Watch estimated has led to more than 12,000 killings.

Coming into office, Duterte immediately asserted his independence on the global stage, visiting Beijing, making economic deals with China and setting aside an international tribunal case, initiated by his predecessor, that vigorously rejected Chinese claims to islands near the Philippines.

But gradually, and since meeting President Trump late last year, the Philippine leader has begun re-positioning his country, authorizing more joint military exercises and strengthening military cooperation, including anti-terrorist campaigns in the south. The Philippines is one of four Asian nations with a mutual security treaty with the United States.

And like Trump, Duterte has benefited from a strong economy, a growth rate above six percent. Even so, more than two million Filipinos still seek work around the world, many as domestics in near servitude. They send home more than $30 billion. But from Hong Kong to the Persian Gulf, according to advocacy and human rights groups, overseas workers, especially young women, who are subject to physical, emotional and sexual abuse, are often quelled into the most inhumane circumstances and even found murdered in various countries around the world.

But the largest Philippine diaspora, which grew in part from forty plus years of American military and colonial rule until independence in 1946, is in the United States. More than three million U.S. citizens claim Filipino descent. Another part of the U.S. legacy is that the Philippines are the third largest English-speaking nation in the world after the U.S. and India, as the populace speaks its native Tagalog but begins studying English in elementary school.

A principal link to the diaspora community as well as being a key steward of U.S.-Philippine relations is the country’s Ambassador to Washington, Jose Manuel Romualdez. He presented his credentials last November. The one time journalist and media executive is the third in his family to serve in that post, and in the family-oriented networks of Philippine politics is a nephew of former First Lady Imelda Marcos. For a while the youngest among seven children, he is known to a wide circle in Manila and Washington as Babe.

Diplomatic Connections is pleased to join Jose Manuel Romualdez, Ambassador of the Republic of the Philippines to the United States, at the Philippine embassy. Your excellency, welcome to Diplomatic Connections.

Diplomatic Connections:  Since the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte there has been much tumult, even invective, in the relations between the Philippines and the United States. Now, two years later, how would you characterize the state of relations between the two countries?

Ambassador Romualdez:  I’ll just say one word, it’s very stable. Stable because, obviously, President Duterte and President Trump had a meeting in Manila last November at the ASEAN summit, and I understand they hit it off very well and that somewhat rebooted our relationship with the United States on a personal basis. I think President Trump and President Duterte have a healthy respect for each other and, more specifically, a great appreciation for the sovereignty of each nation. President Duterte has always believed that every nation has their own issues, they have to solve their own problems, and, of course in turn, they expect all the other countries to respect each other also. I imagine President Trump feels the same way about other countries having to take care of their own respective problems.

Diplomatic Connections:  So, given that there are these two vocal, not shy personalities at the top of their governments, do you see your job as having to sort of tune out that noise sometimes and keep the even key, or the expression you’ve used in the past, working government to government?

Ambassador Romualdez: Well, yes, very often, I expect you are likely posed with the same challenge here, or perhaps there are times when you have to explain some of the things that each leader says.  President Duterte has been described as expressing himself in, some people say, a colorful language, which could be explained I guess by someone in my position, the ambassador, to interpret what he really wanted to say and especially emphasizing the things he feels most strongly about, and obviously his drug war is something very important to him because that was what he promised the Filipino people when he ran for president in 2015.

Diplomatic Connections:  Let’s go through some of the specifics. First, the Philippines is one of America’s four Asian treaty allies. How would you characterize the military relationship? Is your government convinced that the U.S. will live up to its treaty commitments and continue to remain an Asian and Pacific power?

Ambassador Romualdez: Well, I will be very honest to say that there’s been a little bit of doubt in the past, but I think today we are convinced that, and this has been actually communicated to our military, the Mutual Defense Treaty, which was signed in 1951, will be honored by the United States.
Our president himself has said that we will likewise honor that treaty. I understand that’s been established and so we’re confident that this treaty will be implemented, if need be.

Diplomatic Connections:  And it seems that military cooperation, after a bit of a lull, is growing, particularly on two fronts: more joint naval exercises, American support for an expanding Philippine Navy, and also on counterterrorism operations in the South.

Ambassador Romualdez:  Yes, absolutely. We definitely need this kind of an agreement that we have in place with the United States which is the Visiting Forces Agreement, enhanced later on to the EDCA, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. We regard this agreement as extremely valuable and highly significant to both countries, considering that we do have problems, particularly with terrorism.

Diplomatic Connections:  When President Duterte came into office, one of the first things he did was visit Beijing.  He initiated economic projects with China and did not pursue the international tribunal ruling on the Philippines sovereignty of islands in the West Philippine Seas or South China Seas. How does your government view China now, as a friend or an adversary?

Ambassador Romualdez:  From my viewpoint, we have to just look back at exactly what President Duterte had planned when he first stepped into the presidency. He did say that he wanted to engage with China, specifically on economic trade, which is very important for us, and he felt that a bilateral trade, or a bilateral conversation, would probably be the best way in solving some of the issues with them. And I think that he’s been able to successfully do that with the visits that he attended. In fact, President Xi is coming to the Philippines on a state visit this coming November, and I think that is one way of our being able to engage with China and having a serious discussion on the issues surrounding the West Philippines Sea. We hope these matters will be resolved not only bilaterally but also through the entire ASEAN region.

Diplomatic Connections:  What efforts is your government making to assert the Philippines’s sovereignty as well as resource rights in these waters?

Ambassador Romualdez:  Well, that one I think is going to be more apparent in the next couple of months because President Duterte has said that towards the end of his term, and he told President Xi this himself when he visited China, that he will have to sit down and discuss the issue of the West Philippine Sea.

Diplomatic Connections:  Now, speaking of this part of the visit, the one we’ve been talking about, China committed to 24 billion dollars worth of infrastructure projects in the Philippines, but so far according to reports, there have been a lot of delays in these commitments, perhaps up to 15 billion dollars worth – there’s not been progress on. Is your government convinced that China’s going to live up to those commitments?

Ambassador Romualdez:  Well, we’re a very patient people, we—I think—Filipinos generally always give whatever agreements there are – a little bit of slack. We’re hopeful that many of these agreements will be fulfilled by China, but we’re also looking at other countries. Our finance secretary and our economic team, they’re moving around in the ASEAN region and looking at having participants in what we call the “Build, Build, Build” program of the Philippines, which is a massive infrastructure program, 175 billion dollars which will be spent in the next six to ten years to expand the economy. This is from north to south, it’s not just limited to China alone. So, in other words, there are competitors to this opportunity for other countries to invest in the Philippines. Japan, for instance, is playing a major role in our infrastructure program, and there are other countries that are also interested to come in, and we are also going to do the same thing here in the United States, we’re going to have some economic forums where we will invite American companies to come into the Philippines and participate in the fastest growing economy in Asia.

Diplomatic Connections:  Well, on that note, as you just said, the Philippines has been among the most dynamic Asian economies, six percent plus growth over the last decade, but there have been some warning signs recently. Inflation is going up, growth slowed a bit in the last quarter, a drop off in commitments from foreign direct investment. Do you think the country and the government are going to be able to sustain this good growth rate in the future?

Ambassador Romualdez:  Our financial managers are constantly monitoring the economic situation in the Philippines.  As a matter of fact, just recently the new speaker of the house, former president Arroyo, had actually proposed that the budget be on a cash basis, not on a non-cash basis, which means to say that budgets will be created.  But, of course, our budget secretary thinks otherwise, and she also has proposed that we cut taxes on several things like meat, which are inflationary in nature, and all of this to say we’re continuing the discussion on how we can manage the economy. I think over the past 10 to 15 years, the Philippines has managed its economy quite well and that’s why this is where we are today. I am very confident that we will continue to do so in a very good way where our growth will be consistent and constant in the next couple of years.

Diplomatic Connections:  What are the prospects for a new U.S.-Philippine trade agreement in the first place, or the Philippines joining, at some point, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but which of course no longer includes the United States?

Ambassador Romualdez:  We’re currently in a serious discussion concerning a free trade agreement with the United States. Conversations have already begun, especially after President Trump’s visit to Manila last November, and the progress seems to be a little slow, which is natural.  Both countries have to issue a lot of consultations, but we’re very hopeful that this kind of agreement is going to be good for both countries in the long run.

Diplomatic Connections:  Do you envision joining at some point the TPP?

Ambassador Romualdez:  At the moment, there is no significant plan for us to join any of those agreements, or the TPP, and there are other economic treaties that are being worked on, especially in the ASEAN region; therefore, it’s all very fluid at the moment.  Right now, I would say that we are keen on having investments from major countries like the United States, China and Japan and even in Europe. Our doors are open for business.

Diplomatic Connections:  So you’re obviously speaking of other trade deals, does that include Russia?

Ambassador Romualdez:  Yes, we have with what our foreign secretary Secretary Cayetano said, “We would like to be friends to all and enemies to none.” So we’d like to really have as many friends as possible, this is a global world, it’s a global economy; thus, we’d like to have good relations with all nations.

Diplomatic Connections:  You referenced potential foreign investors, mentioning specifically the Japanese; they are among those who’ve expressed concern about uncertainty and the rule of law in the Philippines. How is the government explaining to these investors, and to other governments, its commitment to the rule of law, especially in view of all the commentary about the extrajudicial killings in the drug war and, on a different level, even the jailing of one of the President’s leading political opponents, Senator de Lima?

Ambassador Romualdez:  Allow me to reiterate that the president promised that he was going to go on an all out drug war; and I myself, I’ve been observing the Philippines for numerous years and I didn’t realize, like many others, how serious of a problem this was in our country.  So, I think many Filipinos see and acknowledge that now. The killings, I would say, this was explained to me by one of our police directors; even the retired police general told of how serious it has been. The attention on the drug war was actually initiated by President Duterte. In other words, when he went on an all out drug war, obviously there were some police officers involved in the drugs, and the drug cartels if you want to say that and drug lords, were actually killing each other. That was obviously clear to many of those who were investigating the so-called extrajudicial killings. But, more than that, I think is the fact that President Duterte’s government actually has gotten rid of over close to a hundred police officers who were themselves involved in drugs. So, it’s a continuing problem, but we are also doing something about the rule of law, meaning we are doing something about the police officers who themselves are doing the killings, because they want to get rid of potential witnesses to their crimes.

Diplomatic Connections:  Is there any sign that this anti-drug campaign is actually working?

Ambassador Romualdez:  Unfortunately, President Duterte himself just said the other day, he doesn’t foresee the drug problem to be completely solved by the end of his term. That’s how serious a problem it is. Although, there are clear indications that the drug situation is manageable in a way that we could say that it is not as rampant as it used to be, and how bad it was when he first came into power.

Diplomatic Connections: Now, you’re a journalist. Is press freedom secure in your country because the issue of the denial of license to the Rappler site, the President’s denunciation of certain media outlets, are cited by press groups and others who are worried about the status of press freedom in the Philippines.

Ambassador Romualdez:  Some say that in Asia, or even in the world, the Philippines is probably one of the freest press, to the point that they can be libelous in the way they criticize personalities. I think in the case of Rappler as well as the networks that are involved, the President himself actually has said that they did some things that were illegal. For instance with Rappler, there is a constitutional law that media must be owned 100% by Filipinos and it was clear in the SEC papers that were recently investigated revealing that they are not 100% owned by Filipinos. It could be considered a technical situation, but its still the law. So if you’re going to say the rule of law, then it’s clear that Rappler is not being truthful in saying that they are 100%, which gives the feeling from the government that they are being influenced by outside forces to be an instrument of using it to criticize. I might add, not only criticize but to sort of like put in stories that they feel are biased against the government. But I think more than that, it’s also clear, and I was in media for many, many years, some of our media people can be abusive in the use of the freedom of the press. They just write anything they want and without any reservation whatsoever –  even if it’s not true.  They still put it out and then there is no apology; there is nothing.  One of the things many of us in media wanted to have done was for government to legislate the right to reply, meaning if you have someone who criticizes you, the newspaper or the broadcast station that puts it out, the person who was actually criticized of whatever wrongdoing has the right to reply and they must publish it on the same page or in the same time, the air time that was given to the broadcast journalists to criticize them. Again, these are the things that are a part of what we want to see because as I said, the Philippines is known to have the freest press in the world.

Diplomatic Connections:  One of your key jobs is staying in touch with the Filipino diaspora in the United States and there are more than 3 million American citizens of Filipino descent here. But, there are some estimates that as many as another 300 thousand Filipinos are residing in the U.S. without proper documentation. This administration, one of its signature policies is cracking down on people who aren’t properly documented and even deporting them. How are you negotiating these issues with the administration?

Ambassador Romualdez:  I think, for the 300 thousand that you mentioned, some of them are in the gray area where they can still actually become legal by simply arguing it in the courts, but those that are clearly illegally staying here in the United States, even our President has said that if you break the law in another country then you have to pay the price, the price means your deportation, and you have to accept it. I think that it has been made clear and we’ve made it clear also. However, for those Filipinos who have a chance to stay here, we obviously will try to do what we can and help them legally as well.  If they live in an area where they probably have some kind of a contact with their local congressman or senator, we try to help them to see whether they can be assisted in staying here in the United States.  But definitely we do not endorse people who are staying here, or even in another country, illegally.

Diplomatic Connections:  I mean it’s not easy for a Filipino living in Manila or Davao or, for that matter someplace else, to get a visa to come to the United States.  And, there’s been some political agitation in the Philippines.  Americans don’t need to get a visa to go to the Philippines; although, the reverse is not the case. I, myself, recently went to the Philippines just on my passport.

Ambassador Romualdez:  That’s true. Well there’s always that talk, its reciprocal or eye for an eye. I think realistically, I’ve always told many of our friends that we understand the United States.  There are a thousand and one people who want to come to the U.S., it’s obviously where your dreams come true, so to speak.  I’ve told people that there are two countries where you don’t want to burn your bridges and one of them is the United States.  The other one, of course, is your own country.  So, that’s what I always advise Filipinos who are living here, if it’s time for you to go home, go home because one day you may want to return. This way, you can apply and then legally go back as a visitor or, if there’s a change in the immigration law, you can live in the United States.

Diplomatic Connections:  Some people I know in the international finance business world say that one of the real strengths in the future of the Philippine economy is the number of Filipinos who came here to work, doctors and nurses make good salaries, and as they reach retirement age they want to go home to their country, in a more favorable living environment. Are you encouraging that or is it just sort of happening, and do you see it as a real economic boost for your country?

Ambassador Romualdez:   I take some healthy pride in saying that many of our workers remit about 26 billion dollars, maybe even more this year, right into the economy. And we, Filipinos, are forever grateful to the 12 million Filipino workers who live abroad, send this back home to their families, even to their extended families and the economy has survived a lot of ups and downs because of these remittances. But in the long run, of course, there is still the social problem, and many of these issues can be connected to the drug situation.  These young children of maybe the age of 10 or 15, their parents are working outside of the country, just to be able to bring them to school, and so there’s no parental guidance.  They probably get into drugs and all of the money perhaps goes to waste. All of that is taken into consideration. Of course, the hope of any government, President Duterte is no exception, is that we’ll have more jobs in the Philippines to help less people having to depart and leave their families.

Diplomatic Connections:  The relationship between a colonizing country and the country that has been colonized is always complicated, but there’s one ongoing story currently, developing even as we speak, that the United States is ready to return the church bells to a town called Balangiga that were seized 117 years ago after U.S. soldiers killed an untold number of Filipinos following a guerrilla attack on their base. Now, you’re a writer with a sense of history, how do you look at this often tumultuous relationship between these two countries, colonial rule, the violent fight against it, with the present day situation where we have millions of people with personal, intimate relations between the two countries. How do you see that playing out now and into the future?

Ambassador Romualdez:   That’s part of the history of many nations, I think if you were at war with the British once, and there are other countries, you were at war with Japan, Vietnam, and now you are having great relationships with these countries. I think the Philippines is no exception, except that maybe the Philippines is unique in a way because right now 80% of Filipinos trust the United States as a partner and as a country. They would like to see the U.S. be present in the Philippines in terms of economy, economic trade, and even a military alliance is very much supported by Filipinos, and so we have a long history together and it’s something that nobody can undue. It’s a very tight relationship, many Filipinos, in one way or the other, either have friends, relatives, brothers, sisters who are actually living here in the United States, and every other Filipino wants to get a U.S. visa to come visit here.  So, it’s a familiar relationship that I think is unique for both countries. In fact, when I visited some of the U.S. senators here, many of them have nothing but good things to say about the Filipino communities that live in their area, and that makes me feel great about being the ambassador here.

Diplomatic Connections:  And, so you think this is a relationship that will continue to flourish?

Ambassador Romualdez:   Oh, yes, absolutely, I have no doubt that this relationship is going to be as tight as it ever was, and there could possibly be a few bumps along the road, but at the end of the day it will still be like we are brothers and sisters, part of a very large family.

Diplomatic Connections:  Ambassador Romualdez, thank you very much for joining Diplomatic Connections with this very interesting interview.

Ambassador Romualdez:   Thank you very much for inviting me.

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