Philippines-Kuwait ties: How bad is the diplomatic crisis?

Patricia Lourdes Viray - Philstar.com
Philippines-Kuwait ties: How bad is the diplomatic crisis?
The Kuwaiti government expelled Renato Villa and gave him a week to return to Manila.
Presidential photo

MANILA, Philippines — After declaring Philippine Ambassador Renato Villa persona non grata, the Kuwaiti government immediately recalled Ambassador Saleh Ahmad Althwaikh despite the assurances he gave to the Philippine government.

Villa appears to be the first Filipino envoy who has been expelled by his host country in recent history.

Claiming that Philippine Embassy personnel violated domestic laws and international treaties, the Kuwaiti government expelled Villa and gave him a week to return to Manila.

What angers Kuwait

Kuwait's Ministry of Foreign Affairs first summoned Villa and handed him two diplomatic protest notes related to his remarks against the State of Kuwait and a video showing Philippine Embassy officials rescuing distressed Filipino domestic workers from their employers' homes.

Villa explained to Kuwaiti authorities that the operations were done in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior.

The video that angered Kuwait was initially released by the Department of Foreign Affairs on April 19. It was sent to the DFA Press Corps Viber group, making it free for reporters to use. The release of the video might have been a lapse on the part of the department, which was deemed unnecessary by critics.

A ranking DFA official reportedly authorized intensified operations to rescue distressed workers, which the Kuwaiti government claimed as a violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Provision 41 of the Vienna Convention "bars infringement on individuals' prerogatives and immunities, respecting states' laws and non-intervening in their local affairs."

Expelling an ambassador means that the host country is signaling displeasure with the sending country's policies or a signal of displeasure to that particular person, according to former US Foreign Service Officer John Burgess in a post on Quora.

The absence of the ambassador in a country with more than 250,000 Filipino workers also signals uncertainty whether the memorandum of agreement between the Philippines and Kuwait would be signed. The withdrawal of the ambassador serves as an act of protest and may pave the way for the breakdown of bilateral ties, as what happened between Manila and Kuala Lumpur in the wake of the Sabah dispute.

This would have serious complications for Filipino workers as the embassy serves as a safe haven for them, which would now function without an ambassador when Villa returns to the Philippines. 

The expulsion of Villa and the recall of Saleh comes as the Philippines and Kuwait are slated to sign a memorandum of understanding, which is now in limbo due to the diplomatic conflict between the two countries.

The agreement was supposed to secure the safety of Filipino workers in Kuwait and put in place some mechanisms such as strengthening the 24-7 hotline for distressed workers, establishing a shelter for workers and coordinating with local Kuwaiti authorities in providing assistance to Filipinos.

The conflict with Kuwait might have the most implications so far in terms of diplomatic relations.

Let's take a look at how the Philippines handled past conflicts with other countries:

Sabah dispute

The talks between the Philippines and Malaysia from June 17 to July 16, 1968 to resolve the North Borneo or Sabah dispute ended with the Malaysian delegation walking out saying that there was "nothing more to talk about."

Following the breakdown of the negotiations, the Philippines withdrew its ambassador from Kuala Lumpur to protest Malaysia's "intransigence" and abrupt rejection of Manila's claim over Sabah.

The conflict between the two Southeast Asian countries further deteriorated when former President Ferdinand Marcos signed a House bill including Sabah in the country's national boundaries. 

This pushed the Malaysian government to suspend diplomatic relations with the Philippines and recalled its ambassador and embassy staff in Manila. Since the falling out with Malaysia, the Philippines had attempted to resolve the dispute by bringing it to the International Court of Justice.

President Rodrigo Duterte, however, made an agreement with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to set the issues aside as Manila and Kuala Lumpur focus on other aspects of its relations.

2010 Manila hostage crisis

Relationship between the Philippines and Hong Kong soured following the 2010 Manila hostage crisis, which claimed the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists. The Aquino administration had refused to apologize for the incident despite the blame on the blunders and lack of training of Filipino policemen.

The relations between the Philippines and Hong Kong returned to normal when Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada issued an apology during a visit in April 2014 to settle the issue. The special administrative region of China has then resumed visa-free access for Filipino diplomats and officials and lifted the travel warning against the Philippines.

Duterte also recently made a public apology in Hong Kong for the 2010 hostage crisis and vowed to invest in equipment and training of government forces to improve their capabilities against security threats.

South China Sea dispute

China-Philippines ties were strained when the latter filed an arbitration against Beijing's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea before the United Nations-backed tribunal based in The Hague, Netherlands.

The maritime tension arose in April 2012 when a Philippine Navy ship and eight Chinese vessels were locked in a standoff in Scarborough Shoal, which is being claimed by both countries.

It January 2013, the Philippines instituted the arbitral proceedings against China's expansive claims in the contested waterway. The UN-backed tribunal would eventually rule in favor of Manila, invalidating Beijing's historic claims over the region.

China, however, refuses to acknowledge the international tribunal's landmark ruling.

When the Duterte administration took over in 2016, the Philippines pursued a different approach on the issue, seeking greater ties with China and setting aside the tribunal award.

The ASEAN and China are currently holding negotiations on a legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to resolve the dispute. Manila and Beijing had also opened a bilateral consultation mechanism to settle the issue.

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