Presidential foreign trips increasingly important

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez - The Philippine Star

There is no doubt that presidential trips are extremely important in this ever-changing global world. In the recent history of the Philippines, FVR had the most number of presidential foreign trips. One can argue that his foreign trips were significantly important and, I must admit, having joined several of them, that they yielded fairly good results.

PBBM’s recent trip to Indonesia and Singapore garnered an estimated $14.36 billion worth of potential business deals in the areas of renewable energy, e-commerce, technology, agriculture and others that could generate more jobs for Filipinos.

I have always believed in ASEAN centrality, especially with the regional bloc having emerged as a central player in the global stage not only because it has a huge population estimated at 680 million and a combined GDP of $3.2 trillion in 2019 – making it the fifth largest economy in the world – but due to the fact that it can play a pivotal role in promoting peace, particularly at a time of heightened tension in the Indo-Pacific region and the rest of the world.

This was emphasized during the meeting between President Bongbong Marcos and President Joko Widodo of Indonesia. “We were cognizant of our roles as neighbors and partners in ASEAN. We all shared the view that in this time of uncertainty and geopolitical turmoil and uncertainty, unity, mutual respect and the principle of sovereign equality should always prevail in our efforts to uphold peace and stability and an environment conducive to our national development,” PBBM said, noting that ASEAN should be the “lead agent” in bringing about the changes that they want to see in continuing the path towards peace.

Of all our neighbors in Southeast Asia, Indonesia perhaps is the nation with whom we share many similarities. Both are founding members of ASEAN (whose headquarters is in Jakarta), both are archipelagoes with thousands of islands and both have hundreds of local dialects or languages. As President Marcos noted, the two nations are close in terms of geography as well as in culture and ethnicity.

Formal diplomatic relations between Indonesia and the Philippines began in 1949, but the relationship goes “much further than that because we consider Indonesians not only a neighbor, not only a friend, but kin,” the President stressed. Indonesians are sometimes mistaken for Filipinos and vice versa because we look so much alike and, as a matter of fact, there are hundreds of words in the Bahasa Indonesia language that sound almost the same as Tagalog.

Agreements on defense and security were also signed during the visit to Indonesia, with both governments renewing the commitment to stronger bilateral cooperation on trade, infrastructure, as well as border and maritime security, among others.

The state visit to Singapore was equally fruitful, with members of the President’s economic team reaching out to Singaporean businessmen and members of the international business community to highlight that the best time to do business in the Philippines is now as the country has “opened  its doors even wider for mutually beneficial investments” even as we “rebuild our economy and gun for rapid, broad-based growth in the next six years,” said Finance Secretary Ben Diokno.

Describing the Philippines as Asia’s “fastest rising star,” the President said he intends to fully maximize trade and economic cooperation between the two nations. In 2021, Singapore was the Philippines’ highest investor, with companies investing in big-ticket projects in telecommunications, infrastructure, start-up and innovation, renewable energy and health care.

According to the Department of Finance, Singapore has been the Philippines’ top source of foreign direct investments and sixth largest trading partner. With an estimated 200,000 overseas Filipino workers living and working in Singapore, this tiny but very highly developed nation was the second largest source of OFW remittances worldwide last year, totaling $2.20 billion.

One of the very incisive commentaries regarding the President’s visits to Indonesia and then Singapore came from Philippine STAR columnist and former NEDA head Gerry Sicat. In his column titled “BBM’s diplomatic offensive can also be a learning process,” he discussed the symbolic significance of the visits to the two nations that are “good examples of economic success stories.”

There are many things that we can learn from the experience of both countries that have both “developed a track record of consistent success in economic growth, in the midst of many global and regional crises that continually challenge all nations,” with both having become “strong magnets for the inflow of foreign capital into their countries in the last few decades,” said Gerry.

One thing that has become very clear is the importance of presidential visits in furthering foreign policy. While technology has given rise to apps that make virtual meetings possible, there is no replacing the impact of face-to-face meetings for leaders to discuss and thresh out issues of mutual benefit and concern. As Gerry pointed out, diplomacy can “foster closer relations along economic, political and cultural dimensions with other nations. When diplomacy works, it is easier to use it as a tool for national development.”

President Marcos is certainly cognizant of the importance of diplomacy and is keen to reach out to as many countries as possible. As he said, the foreign trips provide him an opportunity to exchange views with other leaders regarding global issues that impact security in the region.

Following the visits to Indonesia and Singapore, other trips are being planned out, including short trips to the UN General Assembly in New York, a possible Japan state visit, the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia and visits to other nations that are important for the President’s economic and security agenda.

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