Government News Analysis

Right man for the job

Alan Peter Cayetano is new Foreign Affairs secretary
Alan Peter Cayetano is new Foreign Affairs secretary

Senator Alan Peter Cayetano (photo), close friend and confidant of President Rodrigo Duterte, is now – as everyone expected – the Philippines’ new Foreign Affairs Secretary. This appointment, which strengthens the Duterte Cabinet significantly, was signed on Wednesday. He’ll need to be approved by the Commission on Appointments but in this case that approval will be rubber stamped; it’ll go through on the nod.

Cayetano, who chaired the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, will hit the ground running. He knows the subject and has been advising Duterte and acting as a sounding board for the president’s foreign policy ideas since the electoral campaign in which he ran for the vice presidency on Duterte’s ticket. He’s the right man for the job. His biggest challenge will be switching from politician to diplomat; replacing oratory with quietly keeping his own counsel.

Foreign policy under Duterte has undergone a seismic shift. The country broke ranks with the United States last year following former US president Barack Obama’s overt criticism of Duterte’s War on Drugs and the meddling of US ambassador to the Philippines, Philip Goldberg, in the country’s domestic politics – two major diplomatic faux pas that left Washington and Manila with horns locked. (As an aside, it’s amusing to hear US outrage over Russia’s “alleged” involvement in the US electoral process when there’s no doubt that the US was deeply involved in the Philippine elections).

These two incidents, however, were the catalysts for the split, but in any event there was always going to be a parting of the ways. Duterte is unapologetically nationalist and was committed to pursuing an independent foreign policy from day one. He’s long believed that the Philippine Republic should forge its own course, in the same way that fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) have done. Singapore is the model he often turns to when describing his aspirations for the Philippines.

The fractious relationship which he had with Obama doesn’t mean, however – as some critics like to suggest – that Duterte wishes to sever all ties with Washington; far from it. It’s an important relationship and it will continue to be – it just won’t be as exclusive as it was. The Philippines will be an equal partner in US-Philippine endeavours, not the little brother as it virtually had been in the past, certainly with regard to its foreign policy ever since being granted independence from the US through the Treaty of Manila in 1946.

Yesterday, while in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where he joined Duterte’s official delegation to the World Economic Forum, Cayetano explained that his focus would not just be on the “new bridges, the new friends which the President has established [but on] our old allies if we have problems with them. That will be the mission of the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs], to follow the policy of the president but to keep building bridges”. That was a clear reference to the American relationship which shows signs of improving under the new White House of US President Donald Trump.

Cayetano, who’s fully on board with a more East Asia-centric foreign policy will concentrate, first and foremost, on relations with the other Asean states, as well as with Japan, China, the new government in South Korea and, to some extent, Taiwan. Cayetano, though a member of the Philippine Senate at the time, joined the official delegation that accompanied Duterte on his state visit to China last October.

Geo-politically, trade-wise and culturally, these countries form the Philippines main development partnerships. In this region there’s tremendous connectivity and interlinking across a broad infrastructure of well-established organisations – from the multiplex Asean, East Asia Summit and the Asia Cooperation Dialogue to the Asian Development Bank and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; from the Asean Economic Community to the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership to China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road; from BIMP-EAGA to the Japan External Trade Organization. The list is endless.

Ex-Asia, the new thrust of Philippine foreign policy will be to broaden relations with other non-Western nations – the Russian Federation and member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) being at the top of the list. In April, Cayetano joined Duterte on his visit to the GCC states of Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE; the remaining two, Kuwait and Oman, will no doubt come later. Meanwhile, Cayetano will accompany the president on his state visit to Moscow (25 May) where he’ll meet with his opposite number, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and to Israel where he’ll hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who also holds the foreign ministry portfolio.

India, however, with its massive market must also be on Cayetano’s agenda. Diplomatic ties between the Philippines and India go back to 1947, just two years after India gained independence from Britain.

They’ve signed a number of agreements including a treaty of friendship, one to establish a joint commission on bilateral cooperation, a trade agreement, both are signatories to a Joint Declaration for Co-operation to Combat International Terrorism and a few other odds and ends. But that’s not much to show for a relationship that’s 70 years old this year. India is also firmly allied with Russia and that synergy makes building Philippine-India ties even more appealing.

Getting back to Philippine-US relations, the only real threat to these comes from within the US itself. Certain members of the Democratic Party will continue to undermine Duterte and push the cause of the Liberal Party, its political soul mate in the Philippines which like itself was rejected by the electorate at its last presidential election. Like the Liberal Party, it too is having problems coming to terms with its defeat.

Further friction could also occur in Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s handling of China – more specifically, over the ever-contentious territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Duterte and Cayetano seem to be happy to take a pragmatic approach to this issue, reasoning that in the greater scheme of things the Philippines will benefit far more from having friendly relations with China than going head to head as the previous administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino did. Furthermore, having subscribed to reaching a solution over the disputed islets of Scarborough Shoal by means of bi-lateral talks between Manila and Beijing, they’re not going to take kindly to Washington poking its nose into this highly sensitive issue again.

Aquino’s confrontational approach resulted in a four-year stand-off which damaged trade relations and consigned exchanges between the two countries to a state of sclerosis. Scarborough Shoal aside, Duterte has not just managed to patch up ties with the Mainland; he’s expanded them further than they’ve ever been. Cayetano will continue to build on that success. Indeed, China (along with Japan) will likely continue to be the main plank of Philippine foreign policy throughout the term of this administration.

The other region where the Philippines might look to deepen foreign relations is in the Spanish-speaking world of Central and South America. Given their shared language, culture and history, these countries would seem to be natural allies. They could also serve as another brick in the wall against the encroachment of a Western political culture that seeks to put its stamp on smaller nations which seek to develop their own blends of democracy.

Right now, given domestic tensions in certain parts of that region, natural friends there would be Mexico – the historic capital of New Spain – Argentina, Chile, Peru and Uruguay plus Portuguese-speaking Brazil which has close ties with both China and Russia through the BRICS economic grouping of which India is also a member.

One region that’s likely to prove problematic is Europe, meaning the European Union (EU). Heavily dominated by Liberal politics, the EU is likely to continue being antagonistic towards the Duterte administration using its machinery to bring him to heel.

Hopefully, Cayetano will resist being drawn into a fight with the European Parliament and concentrate instead on building stronger bilateral ties with individual member states, particularly those in the eastern sector such as Hungary, Czech Republic, Poland and Romania with which it has diplomatic relations. And, of course, the Brexiting UK which has also had enough of dealing with Brussels.

Finally, there’s Australia with which the Philippines already enjoys strong ties in a host of areas stretching from humanitarian assistance to trade and investment to defence and security cooperation. Here, Cayetano will be dealing with Australian Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, who visited Duterte in his home town of Davao City in March.

What transpired were cordial discussions on a host of bilateral and regional issues, including transnational crime and terrorism. Bishop will always be under pressure to raise human-rights concerns but that’s likely to be in a far more diplomatic manner than from members of both the US Congress and the European Parliament. This relationship is as important to Canberra as it is to Manila.

What all this shows is that the Philippines can lay down its credentials as an unfettered independent republic capable of negotiating relationships right across the atlas; and doing so on its own terms. It can build its relations – trade, foreign, defence and diplomatic – with whom it chooses. It no longer requires anyone’s guidance; it’s no longer dependent on anyone’s permission. Its re-established sovereignty which Duterte pushed for and Cayetano will continue to underscore – despite the whining from an entrenched political establishment that wants to regain the old status quo – is the only authority it needs.

Cayetano is an exceptional appointment – he is bright, articulate and eminently qualified for the post. He understands the importance of building and maintaining sound foreign relations and is dedicated to making the Philippines an international success story. In an advisory capacity, and in just one year, he’s already played a pivotal role in lifting his country from being a small insignificant actor on the world stage to being a consequential player. Now – possibly starting with Russia – we expect him to quickly take things to the next level.

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