Interview: the man behind Marcos’ swift shift to the US

Interview: the man behind Marcos’ swift shift to the US

Ambassador Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez has been one of the most influential Filipino diplomats in recent memory, serving as the country’s top envoy to Washington DC under both the Rodrigo Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos Jr administrations.

He is also a direct cousin of the incumbent president and is widely seen as one of the chief architects of the Philippines’ major foreign policy shift in recent months, including Manila’s decision to expand bilateral defense cooperation with the US as well as with Japan and Australia.

In a wide-ranging online interview with Asia Times’ correspondent Richard Javad Heydarian, Romualdez expounded on the thinking behind Marcos Jr’s recalibration of the nation’s foreign policy. Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.

Heydarian: How has Ferdinand Marcos Sr’s foreign policy shaped and informed the current president’s? After all, the late Filipino strongman had a pretty flexible and dynamic foreign policy, which allowed him to maintain robust relations with rival superpowers throughout the Cold War period. How much has his son, the current president who accompanied his parents on foreign trips in his youth, been influenced by his father’s strategic legacy?

Romualdez: Before the elections, I remember him [Marcos Jr] telling me in the car: “Everything that my father said and my father taught me – it’s all coming back now.” He said exactly [this] and this is just a couple of months or maybe about a month before the May [2022 presidential] elections.

He told me: “I really wish my father was still around…I really miss him”, since his father really showed what realpolitik was all about back then [during the previous Cold War] and how he felt that his father was also very smart in the way we he handled [superpower rivalries].

We all know that President Marcos Sr was the one who opened relations with China and Russia [Soviet Union] and then we had a very good foreign policy and, of course, we also had an excellent diplomat in the person of Carlos P Romulo heading the Department of Foreign Affairs back then in tandem with Prime Minister Cesar Virata, who, as a seasoned technocrat, was well-respected in the International Community, especially among investors.

Heydarian: How is the Marcos Jr administration’s foreign policy influenced by the previous president, Rodrigo Duterte, who also oversaw a major shift in the Philippines’ external relations, especially with Washington and Beijing?

Romualdez: Obviously, the Philippines has gone through a lot of domestic political upheaval in recent memory but nonetheless we kept a strong alliance with the United States through and through over the past three or four decades even after the American’s permanent bases were abolished in the early-1990s.

Now, speaking of the Duterte administration, obviously president Rodrigo Duterte came in from a very different angle because his understanding was: “Fine, I see the value of the alliance but I also see us probably being taken for granted” or that “This Alliance is not living up to the expectations of the day” so he felt perhaps it’s time for the Philippines to reach out [and reset bilateral relations].

The most important thing here is the fact that President Duterte, in his own way, in his own peculiar way of conducting foreign policy, was intent on sending a very clear message to the United States that they should not take us for granted; I mean we’re all friends, we’ve been allies for so many years, and everything like that but do not take us for granted.

Then-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Ambassador Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez. Photo: Facebook

That message reverberated very strongly especially with our friends at the Pentagon and that’s why the US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin actually said [during his maiden visit to Southeast Asia in 2021] that America should never take allies [like the Philippines] for granted – and that’s really what this is all about. Thus, President Duterte actually paved the way for President Marcos’s robust relations with the United States these days. 

Heydarian: The reason I asked about the Duterte influence is also because he appointed you as the Philippines’ Ambassador to Washington half a decade ago. Can you tell us a bit about the circumstances of your appointment and the logic of Philippine foreign policy under the former president? What was really going on there?

Romualdez: I was ready to retire [from business and media] but there was also another side of me that wanted to serve [the country]. At the same time, there were a lot of people asking me: “Are you sure you want to really do this because you know president [Duterte] doesn’t really like the United States?”.

I carefully considered if I could be helpful in that capacity, and also had a conversation with President Duterte, who had a very clear picture of how he wanted me to play a role in his administration as the Philippine ambassador to Washington DC.

In retrospect, I would like to think that that is exactly the role I played because every time he would say anything it would be up to me to interpret it in such a way that our friends here at Washington DC would understand the context and relevance of Duterte’s major policy statements. And that was sort of like how things went for me throughout my tenure as Philippine Ambassador in DC.

Heydarian: What explains Duterte’s turnabout in his final months in office, particularly his decision to restore the Visiting Forces Agreement during US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s visit to Manila in 2021? What happened there? Was he ever really serious about his threats against the alliance? Was this all about Duterte’s gratitude for large-scale US Covid-19 vaccine donations?

Romualdez: At the height of the pandemic in 2021, I asked for a Zoom meeting with President Duterte to discuss Covid-19 vaccines, since we were initially getting [most of] our vaccines from China, which were not as effective as the vaccines coming from the United States.

Except, Washington was holding back all their vaccines because President Biden back then wanted all Americans to get it first [before exporting US-made vaccines to other nations] but we had already paid for our Moderna vaccines and, to put it frankly, I basically begged the White House to give us [the vaccines],  to give our people hope – that there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Thus, I specifically asked then-secretary of foreign affairs Teddy Locsin Jr, who also happens to be a very close friend of mine, if I’m going to be the only one that will speak because I really have this whole thing that I need to tell the president and so I gave him [Duterte] the whole nine yards of what our relationship was and how far our relationship has come in spite of all the difficulties that we have had in our long history [during our Zoom conversation].

A volunteer medical worker administers a dose of the Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine to a construction worker during a vaccination drive for economic frontliners, organized by the vice president’s office and city government, in Manila on July 20, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

I talked to the president in Tagalog [Filipino] and I was tearful because I really meant it, because I have so many friends who had already died [from Covid-19 infections] and I said: “Mr president, we need to give this VFA a chance, because it will help us get our vaccines to our people.” Shortly after, Secretary Locsin called me and said the president had decided that [due to our conversation] we will go ahead and restore the VFA. So that’s the story, that’s how it happened.

Heydarian: As someone who has served different administrations, what are the points of continuity and change as far as Duterte’s and Marcos Jr’s foreign policy is concerned? Are we witnessing a major policy shift under the current president?

Romualdez: Marcos Jr is very clear-eyed about our relations with major powers. I mean, the reality is that while he sees China as a potential economic partner, he has to also walk the fine line – or the laser thin line [vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes].

He would like very much to have a good relationship with China but at the same time he is mandated by the Constitution to protect our territorial integrity and he made it very clear from his first state of the nation address that we will not give up one inch and has also been very clear that we do not have an issue with China – instead, the issue is they are claiming part of what is our right.

So with that message, I think it’s clear why we have this [growing defense] relationship now with the United States, since our interests are aligned, and they are with us in terms of supporting our territorial integrity and our sovereignty.

At the same time, they also treat the Philippines as a very important ally when it comes to their relationship with China, especially Taiwan. Obviously, President Marcos will not go for this [expanded defense cooperation with Washington] if it were just a one-sided affair. I think that we are in a good place right now because we have a president who is very attuned to the times. He knows the world of geopolitics.

Heydarian: We also see growing security cooperation with other partners, especially Japan but also Australia. How do you see relations with these like-minded powers and fellow US allies? Can you tell us more about plans for a Tripartite US-Japan-Philippine Security framework as well as proposed VFA-style deals with Japan? That would be quite a historic move, right? Are we looking at a “new Quad” here with US, Australia and Japan?

Romualdez: Ironically, we’re so close now to Japan, and remember Japan was once upon a time an enemy of the Philippines, but now we’re so close that I even told the Japanese Ambassador [in Manila]: “You’re in the Philippines, serving in the Philippines, in one of the best times because you’re now almost at par with the US [in terms of overall strategic relations].”

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Jose C. Faustino Jr., officer in charge of the Philippine Department of National Defense, address the media at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command headquarters at Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii, September 29, 2022. Image: US DOD / Chad J McNeeley

We’re now in discussions with both the United States and Japan – and even Australia is now coming into the picture – so it might end up as a [Quadrilateral] agreement. I think that’s all a very good development for us because we are not leaning on just one country like the United States.

The important thing is they recognize the need for keeping stability in the region and assisting our effort to protect our territorial integrity. We don’t want any country to dominate another country. We learned lessons from what’s happening right now in Ukraine: We don’t want the same thing to happen in our part of the world definitely, so I think all countries now are beginning to realize how important it is to always have robust relationships with like-minded countries.

Heydarian: Can the Philippines be “neutral” amid the US-China New Cold War, especially vis-a-vis the deepening crisis over neighboring Taiwan?

Romualdez: We are facing a real geopolitical situation here. Our alliance with the United States, obviously, is a very important one because of where we are today and whatever we’re doing now – a lot of it is really about deterrence, especially in light of a potential conflict between the United States and China.

Let’s be realistic: if anything happens for instance in Taiwan, do you honestly believe that we are going to be isolated from [the fallout]? Absolutely not. And we have to learn lessons from history. Remember what happened during World War II when the United States (under Franklin D Roosevelt) didn’t want to get involved in the war at first, and so Winston Churchill came to Washington DC so many times to plead with the United States to join efforts to try blunt Adolf Hitler’s [expansionism]?

Churchill was eventually proven right and Roosevelt finally acceded to [the British leader’s pleadings] and so the United States was brought into the war even if they were not directly affected at first until the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor.

We live in a global village, and the bottom line for us is this: Which side do you want – do we want to be on as a country? What kind of system of government do we want? Freedom and democracy, which are very important for us, or the autocratic government?

Then-presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr speaks at a democratic election campaign rally on April 4, 2022. Photo: Facebook

Well, we have chosen to be an open democracy, since the Filipinos want to have that kind of system in our country, and that’s really what it is, and it can’t be anything else, right? Any leader will not go into any kind of alliance if he feels that it’s not really good for the country.

I can tell you this straightforward, this president that we have right now, believe it or not, he is very focused on what he thinks is best for the country [and] he has no other ambition but to do good for the country for obvious reasons.

And like I always say, he ran for the president because he had only one thing in mind: to prove that here and obviously the [Marcos] family are not what people have made or pictured them to be. He is a leader that wants to do his part for the country and he loves the Philippines.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian