MEL STA.MARIA – Diplomacy, the President and damaging possibilities for the Philippines


Amidst President Duterte’s tirades against the US and EU, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez defended the President’s brand of diplomacy. The Speaker recalled in an interview that the President said, “you have elected a president. Hindi daw diplomat. Hindi naman siya tumakbong diplomat eh, tumakbo siyang President.

A person running for the highest position of the land ought to know what he/she is getting into. And if elected to the presidency, that person must fully understand its multifarious responsibilities.

The President is the Chief Executive of the government. According to the Constitution, “the President shall have control of all the executive departments, bureaus, and offices.” The Secretary of Foreign Affairs, who heads the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), is only the alter-ego of the President who, according to the Constitution, appoints the ambassadors and the consuls. The President is therefore the Chief Diplomat of the government. Even our Supreme Court, the interpreter of our Constitution, described the President as the “Chief Architect of our Foreign Policy” (Pimentel vs. Executive Secretary G.R. No.158088 July 6, 2005).

When the President makes a statement concerning international relations, it is indicative of the Philippine’s foreign policy. And, in international law, well-entrenched is the rule known as the doctrine of “unilateral binding statement of a head of state.” It means that the oral or written declarations of the President or Prime Minister of a state can be the basis of international accountability or liability of that state or the state’s government even in the absence of any treaty or bilateral/multilateral agreement regarding the pronouncements.

The declarations have gravitas simply because they were uttered by the head of state. A number of cases decided by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) held countries answerable on the basis of this doctrine. This is why, in matters of global significance, oral and written statements of Presidents or their subalterns are and must be well-thought of – the wordings carefully selected to avoid misinterpretations making the state unduly accountable.

Lately, President Duterte has been very vocal against the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) – even daring them to stop aid or assistance to the Philippines. The arrogance is even highlighted by curses and displays of his middle finger. These acts were brought about by pronouncements of concern by these countries of President Duterte’s apparent non-concern about human rights. In the same breadth, President Duterte appears to be courting China and Russia, two communist states which have exhibited a high level of capitalist greed.

The attitude and remarks of the President are very serious. They are disturbing. Let us assume that the US and the EU stop aid and assistance to the Philippines and halt their beneficial trade-preferences in our favor, what would be the most probable outcome?

Possible scenarios

This is a possible scenario: non-EU renewal of the Generalized System of Preference Plus (GSPP) Status of the Philippines because of President Duterte’s unilateral pronouncements: “I don’t believe in human rights, believe me”, “I’d be happy to slaughter them” (referring to drug addicts) and such declarations were determined by the EU as a government policy, as evidenced by the reported 3,000 extrajudicial deaths of suspected people involved in illegal drugs. It must be noted that EU preferential status may by suspended or terminated if a country’s government has been shown to violate core human rights and/or labor rights conventions.

This means 6,800 Philippine products (processed fruit, coconut oil, footwear, fish, textiles etc.) will enter Europe subject to huge amounts of tariffs, whereas with the GSPP Status, tariffs are greatly reduced, if not eliminated altogether.

Consequently, this may entail increased expense on the part of Philippine exporters. They will pay entry-charges and taxes collectively amounting to millions of dollars. Money previously available and used to answer for salaries, employee-benefits, government mandated contributions, supplier-bills, overseas-transport expenses, local taxes, and other costs of production will be considerably reduced. Also, exporters may be constrained not to fill up orders, depriving local suppliers of much-needed business. This will mean less exports and thus, less income for the exporters and the country. Worse, affected companies may resort to employee lay-offs in order to survive the adverse economic impact of the reduction in business. The children and spouses of these laid-off employees will ultimately suffer a period of economic hardship – debts may not be paid, mortgages may be foreclosed, loans with high interest incurred, assets sold to meet obligations, and schooling on the part of children momentarily stopped, among others.

What next? It seems that the government plans to court China, our defeated adversary in the recently concluded West Philippine Sea case. This essentially means that we will be asking a country with a history of violating our territorial rights for the same, if not better, trade concessions than those we had with the EU. Considering the previous animosity that existed between the two countries capped by the blow that the defeat in the West Philippine Sea case dealt to China’s international reputation, do you honestly think China will be so benevolent and free from ulterior motives? China will know that the Philippines will be desperate to replace the lost export privileges from the EU, which benefitted the Philippines to the tune of about US $13 billion. They will for sure use this as leverage.

As for Russia, what has it granted to the Philippines in so far as trade preferences are concerned? None. The Philippines has very little history with Russia in terms of preferred agreements. How certain is the President that he can persuade the Russian government to suddenly grant favors on the Philippines by way of eliminating high tariffs on our exports, especially now when Russia needs all the money it can get due to its participation in the conflicts in Syria?

It would be ill-advised, nay short of madness, to just forego in favor of Russia the preferential treatment given to us by EU – whose members are Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden. The United Kingdom just elected to get out of EU but has not yet officially severed its membership.

In the meantime, the other ASEAN countries (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam) which merely followed our lead in getting GSPP status from EU will maintain and enjoy such status. The exports of their processed rambutans, mangoes and coconuts, to name a few, will be free from tariff while ours will be charged. Consequently, they can export considerably more than we do – obtaining, without much effort , a great competitive edge over the Philippines. Our ASEAN neighbors, including those without GSPP status like Singapore because of its first-world status, will look at us and wonder: What overriding consideration compelled the Philippine President to deprive his people this competitive edge and billions of dollars? What the heck is going on in the Philippines? And where does that leave the Philippines?

Who did what after Yolanda?

Now let us turn to US aid. Their donations have been acts of generosity. When Yolanda hit the Philippines, the US immediately sent material aid by way of communication equipments and food assistance. Also, the US readily made millions of dollars available. The amount was proportionally increased as the needs presented themselves. One year after Yolanda, the US was still giving aid by providing relief services and the construction of facilities like classrooms. All together, US financial contributions, by 2014, amounted to nearly US$143 million dollars or, in Philippine currency, at least P6.4 billion and additional aid is still coming in. Also the US partnered with non-governmental organizations such as the Catholic Relief Services (CRS). In November of 2014, the US Embassy reported that “USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance provided a US$7 million (PHP 314,521,130) grant to CRS to build transitional houses for families previously living in 17 vulnerable, high risk coastal barangays in Tacloban City.”

Imagine if the Philippines were again struck by calamity, but did not have the option of turning to the US for assistance. Would China or Russia give the same extent of aid, or any aid at all?

To put things in perspective, after Yolanda, China pledged US$2,000,000. Was this pledge, in fact, fulfilled? Many of us do not know that. What we do know is that China’s aggressive bullying acts of grabbing our territorial islands in the West Philippine Sea did not abate at that time, despite the storm. As for Russia, it was reported that, as of 2016, it has given the Philippines about US$4.6 million as assistance to the Yolanda rehabilitation efforts. Even taken together, the combined aid of China and Russia certainly pales in comparison to the aid given by the US. There is no reason to sever ties or dent our good relationship with the latter in favor of the former.

It certainly is not a move many countries in the world are taking or have taken. Even Cuba, a long-time ally of the former Soviet Union and of Russia, has recently restored its diplomatic relations with the US and has started negotiating trade enhancements. Of course, another staunch ally of Russia, North Korea, continues to bad-mouth the US as an evil state, while it remains an isolated country ruled by a corrupt regime which encourages following decrepit and idolatrous ideas of dignity and nationalism. Is this the sort of company we would like to keep? Our ASEAN friends might be shaking their heads at us and wondering what has come over our leaders.

Vietnam’s example

Diplomacy is adding friends and not having enemies. It is understanding and taking advantage of global interdependence. What use is there in damaging or abandoning working relationships with other countries under the pretense of upholding ideals such as nationalism and sovereignty, which in the first place are not under attack? Yes, there are real issues about US military presence in our country, about how much sway the US holds over our foreign policy, and about how truly fair our trade relations are. However, these must be dealt with in a more professional, intelligent, smart, and dignified manner. Our government can effectively protect our independence and sovereignty without the antics, curse words, and certainly without severing ties our people have greatly benefitted from.

Look at Vietnam which was devastated during the US-Vietnam war. It is getting richer by being smart – nurturing, without sacrificing its dignity, a very good relationship with the US , its former enemy, and with EU which includes France, its former colonizer. Vietnam is progressing and looking forward while the Philippines is looking backwards and regressing in its diplomatic relations, at least with the US and the EU. Laos is following the lead of Vietnam. Even Myanmar, whose GSPP status was previously suspended because of its government’s violation of core human rights and labor rights convention, will now be reinstated to GSPP status because of the reforms it has undertaken. Soon, within the next six (6) years, economy-wise, these countries might overtake the Philippines.

I hope the President discontinues blustering and ranting against the US and EU. Nothing can be gained by these actions.

It is the Filipino people who will ultimately suffer from an arrogant and bad foreign and trade policy. This is a serious matter. We do not feel this yet, but when it comes, it will cost us much. So , it is better to brace ourselves. But remember: if the negative consequences happen, we, the Filipino people, whether for or against President Duterte, are NOT to blame.

Let us make our government officials, particularly President Duterte as the country’s Chief Diplomat and Architect of our foreign policy, accountable for a flawed foreign and trade policy. They are to be blamed for our misery – should it happen.