Foreign Affairs Secretary Tackles Philippines’ ‘3 Priorities’
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Albert Del Rosario engaged an audience of around 800 students and teachers as he discussed the country’s foreign policy at a special convocation held June 18 at the Claire Isabel McGill Luce Auditorium.
The convocation, conducted under the General Education Integrative Lecture Series and televised live to some 20,000 subscribers of a local cable station, marked the opening of School Year 2013-2014.
In his speech, the Secretary highlighted the three main priorities of the Philippines’ foreign policy: promotion of national security, promotion of economic diplomacy and protection of overseas Filipino workers. He emphasized how all three reflect the agenda of the Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino III, whom he described as the architect of the country’s foreign policy.
The Secretary started by presenting a scenario that depicts the 24/7 operations of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the challenges that come with the job of a Foreign Service Officer (FSO). Working in over 174 countries across 40 time zones, the Secretary joked about how an FSO can easily be distinguished in the crowd by his or her eye bags.
“The DFA is known as the Department that never sleeps,” he said.
A former Ambassador to the United States, the Secretary said that FSOs are among “the best and brightest”. Every year, the DFA administers a series of exams. Out of around a thousand applicants, hardly ten pass, representing a survival rate of less than 1 per cent.
Silliman University has produced including ambassadors and other diplomats. “They have aspired. They strived. They have been able to achieve their objective of serving the country in the best possible position, which is that of being a Foreign Service Officer”, the Secretary said, referring to the graduates of the University who are with the DFA.
The Secretary, who is soft-spoken and maintains a modest demeanor, however, admitted to his being a political appointee.
“I did not have to take this exam. If I did, even if you give me a hundred years, I would not pass. That’s why I exclude myself when I say that our people (FSOs) are among the best and brightest,” the Secretary said.
While a political appointee, the Secretary is a highly accomplished businessman and corporate executive. He is an economist by training. He obtained his degree in economics from the New York University.
In the performance of its duties, the DFA, the Secretary said, is guided by its battle cry: “reach beyond your grasp”. “You have to be ready to give up sleep, to promote your patriotism. …If you are prepared to do that, you have the whole world ahead of you.”
The same battle cry is embedded in the work of the DFA in promoting the three main priorities of the country’s foreign policy.
“In promoting national security, our major concern is to be able to make our neighborhood strong and safe,” the Secretary said.
He relayed how the government works on its own and in tandem with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in reaching out to its member countries and regional powers, such as India, China, Japan, Australia, Korea and New Zealand. This it does in order to develop mutually beneficial security arrangements. It looks to its European partners, like France, Germany, United Kingdom, Italy, Spain and Russia, for defense cooperation; and continues to work with countries in the Middle East, where there are over two million Filipinos, in seeking resolution to the peace and order problem in Mindanao.
“The idea is not to only keep our neighborhood safe but to also work outside our neighborhood.” This, he said, assists the Philippines in protecting itself from impacts of regional security issues.
The Secretary also tackled the role of the DFA in generating investments and employment opportunities in the country.
“In economic diplomacy, given the President’s objectives of poverty alleviation and creation of jobs, the DFA is working 24 hours to be able to supplement the efforts of attracting foreign investment, boosting trade, enhancing tourism and encouraging development assistance into the Philippines,” he said.
It has developed, together with the Asian Institute of Management (AIM), a program on economic diplomacy to better equip its diplomats with the necessary competencies and skills – a requirement for all ambassadors before assuming a foreign assignment. Ensuring sharper representation for the country, a test is also administered among diplomats before they are considered for promotion.
H explained that program in economic diplomacy crafted with the AIM helps sustain the positive reputation that the country is receiving from the international community as a product of the earnest efforts of the Aquino administration in its campaign for transparency and accountability.
“In 2012 alone, we were able to finalize 43 agreements involving economic cooperation in the areas of development assistance, care services agreements, education, tourism, and investment,” he said. This, on top of billions worth of development assistance extended to the Philippines under cooperation agreements with the European Union and countries like Japan and Korea.
The collective effort of the Philippine government, with the participation of the DFA, has resulted to a 7.8 GDP growth rate, outperforming its Asian neighbors like China, and investment grade ratings given by international independent credit rating agencies.
Of the three main priorities of the country’s foreign policy, the Secretary said, it is “protecting our people who are abroad” that is the core and vital function of the DFA.
He shared that in his visits to heads of state and foreign ministers, his counterparts would often share an observation that compared to other countries, the Philippines does more for its nationals who are living and working abroad.
In 2012, he said the DFA provided all sorts of assistance, apart from repatriation of overseas Filipino workers in conflict-affected countries. He shared: “We have rescued people from poor working conditions, from human and drug trafficking, from death sentences, from criminal charges. We have visited jails. We have provided labor mediation counseling. You name it, we have done it.”
“Why do we do it? Because looking after the welfare of over 10 million Filipinos abroad is closest to the heart of the Aquino administration. And that is our mandate,” the Secretary stressed.
Towards the end of his speech, the Secretary walked the audience through the Philippines relations with the United States and China. He noted that the US is the largest development assistance provider to the Philippines, with 800 million dollars in grants channeled to the country in 2012. China, on the other hand, is the country’s third largest trading partner with which it has a standing agreement that sets targets for trade at 60 billion over the next five years and at two million of inward tourism over the same period.
He then segued into contentious West Philippine Sea issue, providing a clearer picture of the approach of the Philippine government and proving why arbitration as a dispute settlement mechanism is the best option at present for both China and the Philippines.
“We have filed an arbitration case against China. Arbitration, as we see it, is an open, friendly and durable solution to a dispute. We think it benefits everyone,” the Secretary said.
Arbitration, he added, will define and clarify the maritime entitlements of China. “For the Philippines, the arbitration will clarify what is ours. It will define where we can fish. It will define our access to our natural resources. It will define our enforcement of our laws within our EEZ and continental shelf.”
Concluding his speech, the Secretary impressed on the students that future that awaits them in Foreign Service: “I think that what we are trying to do in the DFA is to make people more dedicated, to make people more proactive.” Earlier in his speech, he described the job of an FSO as “challenging but the most satisfying in the world”.
The Secretary also disclosed the opening of a Regional Cultural Office of the DFA at Robinson’s Dumaguete sometime in August this year. The office will facilitate passport applications and renewals, decentralizing processes that required travel to regional offices outside Dumaguete.
Welcoming the Secretary on his arrival was Silliman University President Dr. Ben S. Malayang III. Other dignitaries that met with the Secretary were Silliman Board of Trustees Chair Prof. Leonor M. Briones and Trustee Dr. Angel C. Alcala and government officials: Rep. George Arnaiz (2nd District), Rep. Jocelyn Limkaichong (1st District), Rep. Henry Teves (3rd District), Dumaguete Mayor Manuel Sagarbarria and Negros Oriental Governor Roel Degamo.
(Click to view photos: Foreign Affairs Secretary's Visit)