Last Sunday, Sept. 4, President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. left the country to embark on his first ever state visit as the Philippines’ chief diplomat. Or, as he mentioned in his departure speech “mangangapitbahay muna para sa ating bansa at para sa ating ekonomiya.” His first overseas trip will bring him to Indonesia and then to Singapore. And then, as I understand it from the announcement of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), PBBM will also fly to New York to speak before the United Nations General Assembly.
These are very important foreign trips for the President and for the country not just because these will set the tone of the foreign policy directions of this administration but also because it will allow the country to strengthen ties in the region as we collectively face the challenges facing the world.
Just like his predecessor, former President Rodrigo Duterte, President Bongbong has chosen to visit our allies in the Southeast Asian region. As the DFA pointed out, this is important because as “close neighbors and founding members of ASEAN, the Philippines enjoys active engagement with both Indonesia and Singapore in terms of myriad areas including security and defense, trade and investment, people-to-people exchanges and more.”
The President is expected to meet Indonesian President Joko Widodo as well as Singaporean President Halimah Yacob and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. I am sure that while many geopolitical issues will be discussed, President Bongbong will emphasize the need to protect the welfare of Filipinos working in these two countries. These foreign trips are good opportunities to strengthen bilateral efforts to protect our OFWs worldwide.
In fact, based on statements made by the DFA, Presidents Marcos, Jr., and Widodo are scheduled to discuss the case of long-detained overseas Filipino worker Mary Jane Veloso who has been on death row for over 12 years in Indonesia.
These state visits will also provide an opportunity for the President and his economic team to strengthen economic cooperation and promote the country as an investment destination. I am certain that the business delegation will meet with various business groups in Indonesia and Singapore in order to entice them to do business in the country.
Geopolitical issues will, of course, be the centerpiece of the visit. There are two items in the agenda that I think are very crucial: the West Philippine Sea conflict and counterterrorism. According to the foreign affairs department, there will clearly be discussions on key regional issues of mutual interest, including the West Philippine Sea or South China Sea issue, cognizant that all three countries actually have the common goal to maintain peace and stability and prevent incidents in this particular part of the world.
This visit will give us the first clear indication of how President Marcos, Jr. intends the handle this geopolitical landmine that has been hanging like Damocles’ sword in the region. I find it interesting that PBBM seems to be cautiously balancing the benefits of strong relations not just with China but also the United States. In early July, China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, became the first foreign envoy to visit to the Philippines under the new Marcos presidency. And now, in late September. PBBM will visit the US first via his trip to the UNGA.
The President has emphasized the need to strengthen bilateral relations with Beijing but he also insisted on avoiding a myopic view of this relations: “One of the ways I’ve consistently suggested is that we have our relationship not only on one dimension, not just all about the West Philippine Sea. Let’s add to that – cultural exchanges, educational exchanges, even military if that will be useful.” In other words, the Manila-Beijing historic ties go beyond the conflict. The imperative of course is how to work around this controversy so both countries work on economic and cultural ties.
This is going to be a diplomatic balancing act for President Marcos, Jr. that will test his diplomatic and political skills. I have no doubt that the President will pass this test with flying colors. He has demonstrated his deep understanding of foreign policy issues but more importantly, he has proven that the overriding factor shaping his foreign policy is the national interest.