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Opinion

An ambassador speaks — Part 2

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

A new UK Ambassador, Laure Beaufils is already in town, only a few days after her predecessor, Daniel Pruce, flew back to London at the end of his term. I spoke to him the day before he left, when he provided some insights into the strengthening ties between the UK and the Philippines as well as ASEAN.

In the UK itself, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab in particular are under tremendous pressure because of the chaos unleashed in Afghanistan. Former PM Tony Blair has said “the abandonment of Afghanistan and its people is tragic, dangerous, unnecessary, not in their interests and not in ours.” Marina Hyde, an acerbic pundit in The Guardian newspaper, wrote a particularly scathing piece on Raab, “phoning it in” after it emerged he was on holiday during the rapid unravelling of the situation in Afghanistan and “refused to be contacted” about some government business in the days leading up to the Taliban takeover.

It’s in places like the Philippines that the reinvention of post-Brexit “Global Britain” seems to be working best. “We’re at a particularly exciting juncture in the broader relationship,” Pruce told me. “We are marking 75 years of diplomatic relations and we are in the process of launching what we describe as an enhanced partnership, which will provide a better structure for future engagement between our two countries.”

The partnership is to build what the UK and Manila have had in the past and reflects the new breadth and depth in the relationship. There will be deeper fora within which to address questions of defence, climate change, the environment, as well as the broader political relationship and discuss economic and trade issues.

The partnership provides a mechanism to discuss consular questions in both countries – for Filipinos in the UK and Brits in the Philippines. Some of the elements are already established through committees and working groups which have already met, but before the end of this year, the expectation is for everything to be aligned. “A new architecture for the partnership will be up and running to help drive forward all of those important areas where we’re working together so closely,” said Pruce.

The former ambassador focused on climate change in particular as a good example of how UK-Philippine relations are deepening. It’s a particular priority for the UK, given they’re chairing the COP 26 talks in November. “I’ve been incredibly impressed and encouraged by the really great birth of engagement we’ve had with partners here in the Philippines. As we discuss climate change in preparation for COP26, inside government, outside government and in civil society, we have a group of climate change defenders – people with high public profiles who are helping to connect the issue with the broader population. That’s been a real highlight in recent months for me.”

The previous evening, Pruce had paid his farewell call on President Duterte and was conferred the Order of Sikatuna. “I feel very honored by that. In our conversation before he very kindly presented me with that honor, we were discussing exactly these issues: the 75th anniversary, the enhanced partnership, the breadth of areas that we’d be able to work together in the future.”

One of the five “pillars” of the enhanced partnership is defence. The UK and the Philippines signed a memorandum of understanding in December 2017 between the two defence ministries that paved the way for providing for the more structured contacts they have today. “A joint committee meets on a regular basis that provides, for example, for us to have greater exchanges on questions of training, for example, and expertise sharing,” according to Pruce.

Defence Secretary Lorenzana was able to visit the United Kingdom for talks with his British opposite number in December 2019 at a level that hadn’t happened for a long time. Lorenzana also met private sector companies about defence equipment supplies and got to return to the British commando training center where he had done training in the 80s.

The Royal Navy aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth has been in the Philippine Sea recently as part of a long deployment of the counterstrike group in another illustration of the UK’s commitment to the region. “We’ve always been very clear about the importance we attach to UNCLOS, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the primacy of the international legal framework. I’d set that in the broader context that not only encompasses these issues, but also informs all of our international policy, which is the importance of the rules-based international system.”

Another top priority for the UK is engagement with ASEAN, which reached a landmark with the UK’s acceptance as an ASEAN Dialogue Partner in early August, the first ASEAN has agreed to in 25 years. Pruce noted the Philippines’ support of the UK in this. The UK hopes it will lead to closer cooperation between the UK and the region on a range of issues such as trade, investment, climate change, the environment, science and technology and education.

A lot was achieved during Pruce’s term at the British embassy in Manila and I wondered what he’d miss most about the country. “It has to be the warmth and the friendship of the people,” he told me. “I’ve been working as a diplomat for over 30 years now. I’ve done a range of postings, I’ve worked in all sorts of different environments, but I’ve never felt such genuine warmth, friendship and hospitality as I felt here in the Philippines. That’s absolutely something that will always stay with me and my wife, Rachel, from our time here. It’s that really warm, human, personal connection.”

AMBASSADOR

ASEAN

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