It may be unrealistic, but it is difficult to let go of the hope that President Benigno S. Aquino 3rd will eventually be able to make an overseas trip without embarrassing himself or the nation; after all, no one wants to see the enormous outlay of time, financial and manpower resources be completely wasted. Unfortunately, it once again appears as though we will have to wait for the next trip to see if any results—or at the very least, the absence of any serious social or political missteps—can be achieved.
If there is anything positive to say about President Aquino’s one-day visit to the World Economic Forum (WEF) meeting in Myanmar last week, it would be that it was fairly economical by his standards, having a budget of only P6 million and an entourage of 57 people, 10 fewer than he took with him to the last major WEF meeting in Davos, Switzerland. And he managed to escape Myanmar merely looking completely clueless about his surroundings and contemporary political realities, rather than actually saying something worthy of a public contradiction or rebuke from other regional leaders. Given Aquino’s record of cringe-worthy performances in overseas forays, the Myanmar junket might actually be considered a success, if his Vice President hadn’t been putting on a respectable diplomatic performance halfway around the world at the same time.
On a side note, the two leaders’ schedules raise another interesting point: Vice President Jejomar Binay arrived in Germany on Monday, June 3, and returned to the Philippines this past Monday (June 10). President Aquino left for Myanmar early in the morning of Friday the 7th, and returned to Manila sometime after midnight on Saturday. So for most of Friday, neither the President nor the Vice President were actually in the country. Make of that what you will.
To be fair to the President, a WEF meeting, particularly in one’s own neighborhood, is an important affair and his wish to attend is understandable. And no one really expects anything groundbreaking to come from a one-day get-together; at best, it was an opportunity to make a friendly impression on others and hand out some business cards, a networking exercise rather than an actual “summit.” The reason the WEF held the meeting in Myanmar in the first place was to provide a networking forum for people interested in Myanmar, and as a none-too-subtle endorsement of the reform accomplishments of the government under (or rather, behind) Myanmar President U. Thein Sein. If the attendees wanted to hear about the Philippines at all, it would only be to listen to polite reassurances that the Philippines is eager to work with its regional partner, and hopes that the Myanmar’s reform progress continues.
Instead of recognizing the context in which he found himself, President Aquino instead spent his precious few moments of public time delivering the same old vacuously self-indulgent sales pitch to investors he imagines are “lining up” for the Philippines. At an event intended to boost the profile of the host country, that was the diplomatic equivalent of being invited to a luncheon hosted by Coca-Cola, then standing up and telling everyone how great Pepsi is. Awkward though that moment was, at least it was brief. The President spent more time visiting Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s fading tourist attraction for VIPs, where he was visibly more at ease; being in the company of an elitist posing as a populist champion who is apparently unaware her political capital at home and abroad is steadily evaporating is probably a familiar scenario for him. We might actually wonder if he didn’t experience a slip of the tongue at some point and addressed Suu Kyi as “Mom.”
By contrast, Vice President Binay was actually doing something on his trip, despite having to settle for flying commercial with a much smaller entourage. In his meeting with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Binay received the message—delivered, of course, in polite diplomatic language, in which the Vice President is fluent—that while German firms are actually interested in investing in the Philippines, resolution of the nagging issue of the involvement of German transport giant Fraport in the ill-starred Ninoy Aquino International Airport Terminal 3 project, a 20-year-old comedy of errors the Aquino administration has, up until now, addressed mainly by just wishing it would go away on its own, is considered a prerequisite to improved German-Filipino relations. Moving on from that, Binay—in his capacity as the Presidential Adviser on Overseas Filipino Workers Concerns—formalized a minor deal for the employment of a few hundred Filipino nurses in Germany, and held a number of discussions with German shipping executives to seek their help in the Philippines’ achieving compliance with the 1978 International Convention on Standards of Training, Certification and Watchkeeping for Seafarers (STCW).
While the Fraport matter presents a problem that the Aquino administration does not seem prepared to face right now, having the issue clarified—particularly in terms of a strong suggestion that there would be a much larger long-term reward for solving it—is very helpful. And while the employment offer for 550 nurses between now and the end of 2014 is a small achievement in comparison to the scale of the Philippines’ overseas workforce, the effort to correct the country’s shortcomings with respect to the STCW certification is not. Although the issue was not widely publicized here, in April the country failed an audit by the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA) in circumstances eerily similar to the country’s downgrade by US and European aviation officials. The Philippines failed to meet European Union (EU) standards on maritime education, training and competency certificates, and if the country fails the next EMSA audit scheduled for this coming October, it could result in a hiring freeze of Pinoy sailors by European firms, and might possibly affect the employment of about 80,000 seamen already working aboard EU-registered vessels.
One takes a day trip to Myanmar and returns to report that he was actually there, the other spends a week in Germany and returns with at least three substantial matters for further attention. You can draw your own conclusions about which one may be making the country’s economic interests a bigger priority.