Last Friday, Britain’s Ambassador to the Philippines, Asif Ahmad (photo, left), was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List; he was appointed a Companion of the Most Distinguished Order of St Michael and St George. He is now Asif Ahmad CMG. It’s a fitting award for Britain’s man in Manila whose term there comes to an end in August. He’ll be missed in Philippine diplomatic circles and he’ll leave big shoes to fill.
Ahmed didn’t just head-up the UK mission in the Philippines, he doubled it in size – visa operations at the British Embassy in Manila now cover 14 countries from an expanded application centre in the capital and a new facility in Cebu City.
He also helped to forge a golden age of commerce between the two countries – bilateral trade has hit record highs during Ahmad’s term; UK investment in the Philippines outstripped every other European country; in 2015 the Philippines became the second-fastest growing market for British exports globally. In many ways, through trade, investment and cultural and work exchanges, Pinoy-Brit became a serious item.
But part of Ahmad’s legacy – and one he’ll be warmly remembered for – will be the calm execution of his role as an emissary of Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service. Ahmad is the quintessential diplomat. Unlike the former US ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, he didn’t indulge – or rather meddle – in clandestine politics as the guest of a foreign country; he kept well away from all that. He came to the Philippines to make a difference and he succeeded. UK-Philippine relations gained in strength and have never been stronger; by contrast, under Goldberg, US-Philippine relations sank to their lowest level in recent times.
While Goldberg sought to influence last year’s presidential election campaign, suggesting Filipinos should vote for consistency and continuity – an evident endorsement of the Liberal Party’s ticket of Mar Roxas and Leni Robredo; and wholly unbecoming for the ambassador of a foreign country – Ahmad’s only involvement in the internal affairs of the Philippines was if he felt the archipelago could directly benefit from UK assistance.
Even before taking up his post he pushed for the UK’s inclusion on the International Contact Group on Mindanao, a mediation support initiative set up in 2009 to promote peace in the country’s troubled southern Muslim region. In January 2014, during the devastating Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan) – the deadliest and most destructive typhoon ever to strike the Philippines, piling up a death tally of 6,300 – Ahmad’s response was full on.
Although no defence agreement existed between London and Manila, he was able to convince both sides that aid and assistance should be rushed in from Britain. Starting from zero, as he put it, deliveries were ramped up as the British Government deployed 1,300 military personnel, two ships, helicopters and aircraft while Ahmad coordinated the UK humanitarian relief effort on the ground. He describes that effort as: “One of most rewarding periods of my career”.
He may have had Yolanda in mind when in his response to the announcement of being awarded the CMG he said this: “In carrying out my duties, I have been encouraged and motivated by the impact we have on the lives of people, sometimes in very challenging circumstances”.
He may also have been recalling his time, prior to coming to Manila, as Britain’s Ambassador to Thailand and also Laos. He was in the British Embassy in Bangkok when violent and bloody protests erupted outside between pro- and anti-government forces in 2010; the following year when severe floods washed through the Thai capital, he helped coordinate Britain’s contact with the Thai Navy to assist the evacuation effort. In 2008, as head of the foreign-policy team covering the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, he was involved in facilitating relief operations in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis – death toll: 138,366 – the worst natural disaster ever to hit Myanmar
Before Ahmad leaves the Philippines to take up his new appointment as High Commissioner of Jamaica, a former Crown colony which remains within the British Commonwealth, he’ll likely receive one more award – the Order of Sikatuna.
This award, made to foreign diplomats and nationals, recognises “exceptional and meritorious services to the Republic of the Philppines”; bestowed on those who’ve “rendered conspicuous services in fostering, developing and strengthening relations between their country and the Philippines”. Ahmed would receive the honour from President Rodrigo Duterte or Foreign Secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano. Understandably, Goldberg was not endowed with the Order of Sikatuna.
A fluent Tagalog speaker, the British ambassador has been able to communicate with Filipinos from the diplomatic to the street level. That also helped him in his other role, as the non-resident ambassador to Palau, an archipelago of around 340 islands in the Western Pacific where Filipino is the second language.
In Jamaica, however, he’ll have little opportunity to use Tagalog or any other of his language skills – he also speaks French, Urdu, Farsi, Bengali and Kutchi. The lingua franca in Jamaica is English. We’re fairly sure though, he’ll retain a soft spot for the Philippines as the Philippines will for him and we wish him good fortune in his new job.
Ahmad’s replacement for Manila and Palau is Daniel Pruce (photo, right), formerly Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in Madrid, a position he’d previously held in Bangkok. He’s served as the UK’s permanent representative to the European Union (EU), headed the Economic and Central Europe Group of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and was a former International Affairs Press Officer at 10 Downing Street.
In short, he’s a career diplomat and eminently qualified to fulfill his diplomatic duties as chief of mission in the Philippine capital. This is an important posting – not least given the UK’s heightened interest in the region following Britain’s exit (Brexit) from the EU, and enhanced bilateral trade and investment are likely to feature strongly throughout Pruce’s ambassadorship.
It was significant that the first overseas trip made by UK Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, directly following the triggering in April of Article 50 – the mechanism by which Britain formally quit the EU – was to the Philippines.
Furthermore, the FCO identified the Philippines some time ago not just as an emerging economy but as an emerging power with a greater role to play on the world stage. And certainly the Philippines’ stature as an international player has risen considerably since Duterte started setting Philippine foreign policy on an independent trajectory – a policy that’s led to reproval from elements in the West.
Britain’s refrained from joining the political chorus of anti-Duterte criticism that’s come largely from the US and parts of the EU. In April for example, while visiting Manila, the UK’s Prime Ministerial Trade Envoy to the Philippines, Richard Graham, spoke warmly of Duterte’s “strong leadership” adding that Britain’s investment community felt reassured by the president’s stance on law-and-order issues.
Pruce, who’s now studying Tagalog, will need to maintain that same diplomatic quietness; Brexit after all, much like Duterte’s election campaign with its strong message of ‘nation-building’, was also a referendum on sovereignty.
Thankfully, Pruce has been appointed from the diplomatic corps and is not a political or showbiz installation – a trend which former US president Barack Obama tried to spawn with his appointments of a TV soap-opera producer to head his country’s mission in Hungary, a Democratic Party apparatchik to lead the US mission in Argentina and his (failed) nomination of an attorney to head the US Embassy in Norway, a country he’d never visited and of which he had little knowledge. None of that was appreciated by the American Foreign Service Association however.
But what these three lacked in diplomacy training, they more than made up for in their abilities to fundraise for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign – respectively they brought in US$2,101,635; US$500,000 and US$988,550. Britain, we’re pleased to say, isn’t in the sleazy business of “ambassadorships for favours” and is sticking with diplomats.
We wish Daniel Pruce all the best in carrying out his appointment. What he inherits is a broad administrative infrastructure, an enlarged and efficient embassy staff and the support of the Philippine Government. We’ll be watching his performance closely. This is not an easy, sleepy backwater post as it may have once been; the Philippines is fast emerging as a place of mounting geopolitical importance where diplomacy will be increasingly important.