Interviewed by: Katia Hadjiyska
Katia: First, tell us about yourself and walk us through your background.
I wish to thank you for this interview. I assumed this office a few months ago and I believe that this interview is a good avenue for the Philippine Consulate General in Houston to re-introduce itself here. The Consulate re-opened in September 2018, exactly 25 years after it closed its doors in 1993.
Prior to this assignment, I was the Assistant Secretary and Chief of Protocol at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Manila.
My last foreign assignment was as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam for 6 years, from December 2009 to January 2016. Since joining the Philippine foreign service in 1979, I served in the Department of Foreign Affairs in different capacities and served abroad also in different capacities in Seoul, Korea; Tokyo, Japan; and Ottawa, Canada.
In the Philippines, I also served as the Chief of Presidential Protocol at the Office of the President.
I was born in February 1959 in San Fernando, Pampanga. I graduated from the University of the Philippines with a degree in Bachelor of Science in Foreign Service. I finished Master of Arts at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, as a Fulbright scholar in Massachusetts.
Katia: Tell us about the Philippine Consulate General in Houston. What parts of America are covered by the Consulate and what are the services it provides?
The Philippine Consulate General in Houston, which was closed in September 1993, reopened last September 24, 2018, serves the needs of some 179,000 Filipinos in the states under its jurisdiction, namely, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas.
The reopening of the Consulate General was done in response to the strong clamor from the Filipino community in the south-central US for the opening of a consular office in their area. Our office will bring the services of the Philippine government closer to the ever-growing Filipino community, whose consular needs have diversified and have become more complex. Prior to the opening of the Consulate General in Houston, Filipinos and other people in Texas wishing to avail of consular services would have to fly to other Consulates in the US, such as those in Los Angeles and Chicago.
Our office offers a variety of consular services, including civil registry services such as Reports of Birth, Marriage and Death, notarial services, affidavits, certification, issuance of travel documents and fingerprinting for National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) clearances, passport processing, visas, authentication services and dual citizenship services. Our office, likewise, provides assistance to distressed Filipino nationals, promotes Philippine culture, and strengthens economic ties between the Philippines and the South Central US.
The Consulate General is located at 9990 Richmond Ave., Houston, TX.
Katia: What are some past, present, and future goals for the Philippines’ relationship with the US?
The Philippines and the United States have an enduring alliance that is based on deep historical and cultural ties, buoyed by our shared values, shared history and shared interests. The Philippines gained its independence from the United States on July 4, 1946, and diplomatic relations were formally established the same day. Both our countries pledged to expand cooperation and reaffirmed our commitment to strengthening the bilateral alliance, a 70-year partnership that has stood the test of time.
The United States and the Philippines are treaty allies under the Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. The Philippines is the oldest security ally of the US in Southeast Asia and one of the five treaty allies of the US in the Pacific region. This treaty is reinforced by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in 2014 and the Partnership for (economic) Growth Initiative.
Now for the present and future goals, allow me to mention that at the outset, President Duterte has articulated that the Philippines will pursue an independent and principled foreign policy that bolsters the Philippine national interest, fosters respectful friendships and facilitates meaningful cooperation. Among our traditional partners, the United States stands out because of its history and deep interconnection at various level of government and among the grassroots. Our partnerships with traditional allies will always remain strong and fruitful, and we are also keen to have friendly and mutually-beneficial ties with all countries.
We will continue to work with the US on broad areas, particularly in trade and investment, education, development aid, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, and defense cooperation.
And as my country’s representative in this side of south-central US, it is my job to go out and look for these new connections, the right officials and the right institutions. We were also instructed to explore nuanced approaches to align that could help make it easier to advance the Philippine interest in the US.
In addition, even more than these government-to-government relationship, what bolster and solidify the PH-US relations are the ties among peoples and business. There are almost 4 million Filipinos living in the United States while there are approximately 400,000 Americans who call the Philippines their home. In terms of education, various educational programs further strengthen our bond which includes the Fulbright Scholarship Program that has sent more than 3,000 Filipino scholars to the US and nearly 1,000 American scholars to the Philippines, and the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative, among others.
Katia: Tell us about your perspective on ways that US-Philippines cooperation may be furthered.
There are multifaceted ways by which the PH-US cooperation may be furthered. As earlier mentioned, cooperation will continue to be enhanced by political engagement, strategic security engagement, development assistance and economic cooperation and people-to-people ties.
Both our countries recognized the importance of regular discussions under the US-Philippine Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) in order to further strengthen trade and investment. The Philippines is keen in exploring a possible bilateral Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States which we believe is a reasonable first step in the Trump Administration’s trade policy strategy for the Indo-Pacific Region. Presidents Trump and Duterte met in the Philippines last November 2017, where the US welcomed the Philippines interest in exploring a possible FTA. I believe that both leaders understand the importance of an FTA, especially if it is fair, reciprocal, and will benefit both countries.
The US is our 3rd major trading partner with total bilateral trade valued at US$ 15.83 billion. It is our 2nd biggest export market, accounting for 15% share of total Philippine exports to the world (US$ 8.66B) and our 3rd import supplier accounting for 8.85% share of PH’s total imports from the world (USD$7.16 B).
In 2017, the Philippines is the United States’ 11th largest destination for its agriculture and food products valued at $2.7 billion while the US imported about $1.2 billion of agriculture based and food products from the Philippines, its 24th largest import source for agricultural products.
In terms of investments, the United States is the 3rd largest investor in the Philippines. Over the past five years, US foreign investments in the Philippines amounted to $3.3B, largely in the sectors of manufacturing, real estate, and ICT services. The administration has taken significant strides in changing our domestic regulations to drive foreign investment.
Now, in terms of development assistance, together with US partners such as USAID, in line are projects that promote both economic prosperity and regional security. The Philippines was selected in 2011 as one of four (4) countries with which the US would initiate its Partnership for Growth program, or PFG, aimed to establish a high-degree of partnership on a broad range of issues that would address constraints to growth and would improve the country’s attractiveness for investment. Per USAID, this PFG has accounted for more than US$739 worth of assistance to be directed to the Philippines on programs centered on tax administration and policy; expenditure management; and capital market development.
In January 2017, the Philippine government renewed its engagement with USAID under the aegis of Partnership for Growth with Equity, or PFGE. The change in nomenclature of the partnership would reflect the thrust of the Philippine government’s efforts under the Duterte administration to ensure more inclusive growth and to reduce poverty incidence by promoting greater socio-economic equity.
Katia: What are some big picture issues facing the Philippines today?
In answering this question, I believe that it is worth mentioning the Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022 which lays down the foundation for inclusive growth, a high-trust and resilient society, and a globally competitive knowledge economy. The goal is to propel the country on a faster economic growth path while enduring that no one is left behind and that all Filipinos are empowered to attain their ambition (AmBisyon).
This is the first medium-term plan to be anchored on the 0-10-point Socioeconomic Agenda and is geared towards the national long-term vision, Ambisyon Natin 2040 which articulates the Filipino people’s collective vision of a matatag, maginhawa, at panatag na buhay para sa lahat which means that “by 2040, the Philippines will be a prosperous, predominantly middle-class society where no one is poor. Our peoples enjoy long and healthy lives, are smart and innovative, and live in a high-trust society.” I mentioned this because this is the foundation by which my country plans to solve the issues we face today. We are a developing country which hopes to uplift the lives of our people through the initiatives by the administration.
Our government is also embarking on an ambitious infrastructure program called “Build Build Build,” where up to $180B infrastructure projects available to ensure a mutually beneficial and lasting partnership with US companies in this sector. This ambitious plan aims to accelerate infrastructure development across the Philippines, creating vital connections to minimize environmental and societal damage from natural disasters, ensure thriving channels of commerce through free-flow of public, private, and commercial transportation, and reflecting a higher standard of tourism attractions. There are about 75 projects in roads, bridges, railway systems, airports, ports water transport, and flood control management, and irrigation systems that will improve mobility and logistics across the different islands of the Philippines.
As mentioned earlier in the strides in strategic security engagement is our resolve to counter terrorism which is a scourge threatening peace and security anywhere in the world. As we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year, the Philippines renews its responsibility to protect its population against crimes that dehumanize their victims such as illegal drugs, trafficking, and terrorism.
With more than 10million overseas Filipinos, representing about 10% of the Philippine population, the goal is to look after their well being and welfare, and with the ultimate goal to improve the economy, thus creating more jobs and hopefully to entice our diaspora back home.
Katia: How is the Filipino business community uniquely positioning itself to help Americans who are interested in doing business in the Philippines?
The Philippine government, in partnership with the Filipino business community, is very aggressive in its efforts to attract foreign businessmen to the Philippines.
The Philippines is guided by the President’s 10-point socio-economic agenda of pursuing reforms, increasing competitiveness and the ease of doing business, accelerating infrastructure development, promoting agriculture, and human capital development, among others.
In line with this, we have taken notable strides in creating a favorable investment environment in the Philippines. Our government has vastly improved our domestic regulations to drive foreign investment. In the period of January – March 2018, the Philippine Board of Investments (BOI) recorded $2.5B worth of projects, up by 402.3% compared to the same period last year. The BOI also reported $11.8 B of committed investments in 2017 and will aim to meet the target of $13B of committed investments this year.
We are pursuing an Inclusive Innovation Industrial Strategy to upgrade our industry linkages; integrate manufacturing, agriculture, and services; address supply chain gaps; and deepen industry participation in global value chains.
The Philippines has, likewise, been easing restriction on foreign participation including for contracts for the construction and repair of locally-funded public works, retail trade enterprises, and domestic market enterprises, among others.
Finally, the Philippines has been aggressive in cutting red tape and shortening the processing periods for categories of permits and license.
These developments have been recognized by our counterparts here in the US during the Economic, Development, and Prosperity Working Group of the Bilateral Strategic Dialogue held on December 2017. Our US counterparts acknowledged the “notable” pace of reform around the strengthening institutions and improving the domestic tax system. They added that “the Philippines is at the very top of the list for traction and pace of reforms” and also emphasized that the stronger markets are, the greater investment will be on the private and public side.
As a result of these initiatives, the world’s three main credit ratings agencies—Moody’s, Standard’s and Poor’s, and Fitch—have affirmed the Philippines’ investment grade status and stable outlook. Fitch Ratings upgraded the long-term foreign currency rating of the Philippines to “BBB” with a “stable” outlook.
We are, likewise, proud of the Filipino community here in the United States that served as catalysts for investments in the field of banking, logistics, IT, and franchising.
Currently, the Philippine government in promoting investment opportunities for American investors in the field of animation, game development, healthcare information management, information technology, business processing management, aerospace, manufacturing and electronics, software development, startups and infrastructure.
On this I would like to highlight that we have a relatively young, English-speaking workforce, which is very advantageous in the field of aerospace, IT, BPM and software development. Further, due to its large young population, which include a large base of internet users active in social media, there is an attractive ecosystem to nurture and launch the development and maturation of startups.
Our young population has also given way to our engagement in the creative industry. Filipino animators have successfully worked on popular cartoons and animated films like Addams Family, Captain Planet, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Scooby Doo and Tom & Jerry. In fact, projects for entertainment companies such as Hanna Barbera, Marvel Comics, Walt Disney, and Warner Brothers have been outsourced to Philippine-based animation companies.