China Ambassador Zhao Jianhua with author Wilson Lee Flores holding pugon-baked cake with Philippine and China flags after Pandesal Forum at Kamuning Bakery Cafe in QC
Coffee (and pandesal) break with China and US ambassadors
WILL SOON FLOURISH - Wilson Lee Flores (The Philippine Star) - October 23, 2016 - 12:00am

In this era when many Asians seem smitten with the fad of posh European- or North American-style bakeries and cafes, it was an unforgettable privilege to welcome the visits of the ambassadors of the world’s two biggest superpowers, the US and China, to my small, quaint, historic, traditional Filipino-style bakery café, one I’ve revived on a quiet side street of Quezon City for pandesal meals and Benguet Arabica coffee.

Ambassador Zhao Jianhua came on Oct. 24 for dinner, while Ambassador Philip Goldberg came months earlier, on Feb. 3 this year, for breakfast.

Both ambassadors of China and the US strike me as high-caliber diplomats, not only superior in intellect, but in their genial and friendly personalities, and their good humor. Both also seemed health-conscious in what they ate and drank. Both diplomats have lean physical builds and seem disciplined.

I have had the privilege to meet both of them separately on various social occasions. Zhao at dinners with mostly businessmen while Goldberg I met during several receptions of the Israeli ambassador; I’ve since learned that his Jewish ancestors were originally from an area that’s now part of modern-day Ukraine.

Both diplomats are extremely punctual. Ambassador Zhao arrived ahead of our 5 p.m. call time, explaining with good humor to the media guests and intellectuals gathered for the Pandesal Forum that his driver tried to overcome the traffic jam by following an ambulance. The envoy asked his driver to stop, because he joked: “I didn’t want us to become ambulance chasers.”

Ambassador Goldberg also arrived at exactly 8 a.m. for the scheduled start of his “Pandesal Forum” breakfast with media and intellectuals. Both of them are neighbors in Makati City’s Dasmariñas Village and Forbes Park subdivisions. 

As diplomats used to five-star luxury hotel lifestyles, the two were very down-to-earth, literally breaking bread — our humble Filipino-style, pugon-baked pandesal. They enjoyed the Benguet province high mountain Arabica coffee I served, which is world-class in quality.

Both diplomats are very humble. Before leaving, they visited the artisan bakers and other workers at the non-air-conditioned and hot pugon (wood-fired brick oven) area, personally greeting and thanking them.

Ambassador Zhao has high hopes for new golden era of bilateral friendship

The latest VIP visit was Ambassador Zhao Jianhua, who attended our Oct. 24 “Pandesal Forum” dinner and was the guest speaker. The focus of our discussions was the much-awaited state visit of President Rody R. Duterte to China — part of his efforts to save, restore and normalize our over 1,000-year bond of friendship with our neighbor, now the world’s second largest economy. The trip is seen as a test of Duterte’s diplomatic skills and statesmanship.

CNN Philippines rightly described the event with the Chinese envoy as “a rare public appearance,” while most of the media guests were pleasantly surprised by Zhao’s candor, his fluency in the English language, his natural sense of humor, his willingness to address even some controversial questions. He rightly referred to both the Philippines and China not only as consistently good neighbors for centuries and traditional friends, but also relatives.

Ambassador Zhao Jianhua said he hopes tourist arrivals from China will jump from a half million last year to one million a year by 2017 following Duterte’s state visit to Beijing. He said a million tourists can contribute $1 billion to the Philippine economy, with the average shopping bill of each Chinese tourist hitting at least $1,000.

Zhao said his government would lift its two-year-old travel warning — which he clarified was not a travel ban — on the Philippines during President Duterte’s Beijing vist from Oct. 18 to 21. Apart from encouraging tourism, Ambassador Zhao said President Duterte’s visit is expected to boost investments, infrastructure deals, trade, soft loans, joint anti-drug efforts, donations of huge drug rehabilitation centers, fisheries and agriculture cooperation, people-to-people exchanges, freedom of navigation and ecology cooperation in the South China Sea.

Ambassador Zhao added that his government looks forward to Philippine participation in the trans-continental “One Belt, One Road” economic blueprint and in the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). He hopes the Philippines can soon ratify its membership among the 57 founding members of AIIB, which also includes Britain, Germany, South Korea, France and Italy.

The 51-year-old Ambassador Zhao is highly cultured. He’s an expert not only in diplomacy and geopolitics, but also culture, tea and the arts. He holds a master’s degree in world economics from Nankai University and a master’s in international policy and practice from the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.

Zhao revealed that he has met President Duterte eight times, and that our leader had no particular requests for his itinerary ahead of the pivotal state visit except to inquire if Beijing had any illegal drug rehabilitation center and traffic management center.

Congratulations to Ambassador Zhao for his good work in supporting President Duterte’s sincere efforts to restore our important, friendly bilateral relations and to help usher in (hopefully) a new golden era of expanded cooperation that is mutually beneficial for both countries.

To outgoing American Ambassador Philip Goldberg, godspeed on your trip back home and your future journeys. I believe President Duterte’s disagreements with you on geopolitics, especially your US government’s disagreements on human rights issues, are only part and parcel of the continued maturing of the longstanding bilateral friendship between your country and the Philippines.

My unsolicited advice to Ambassador Zhao: Please tell your government to treasure the sincere friendship of our pro-people and socialist at heart President Duterte, support him and his anti-drugs and anti-poverty efforts for a better Philippines. I think Duterte admires how former colonial victim China has risen from the ashes of the Opium Wars, World War II and Civil War as a self-reliant, socialist still at heart but dynamic capitalistic in globally-competitive economy.

And to Ambassador Goldberg: Do not misunderstand our leader and his tough talk; President Duterte is a genuine nationalist in the mold of our heroes Claro M. Recto, Apolinario Mabini and General Luna.

My unsolicited advice to the US is not to give up befriending Duterte, but to recognize he is a leader of a sovereign nation with his own ways of governing and solving our national problems. As we say in Tagalog panaderia talk: “Walang matigas na tinapay sa mainit na kape” (There’s no hard bread when mixed with hot coffee).

* * *

Thanks for your feedback! Email willsoonflourish@gmail.com or follow WilsonLeeFlores on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and read my new blog wilsonleeflores.com.

 

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