Philippines as APEC host: Bending over backwards for VIPs

Ayee Macaraig
Philippines as APEC host: Bending over backwards for VIPs
From security personnel, diplomatic protocol, the seat plan, and special food requests, the Philippines is preparing to be the 'perfect host' to 20 world leaders for the APEC summit

MANILA, Philippines – Something as mundane as a busted toilet or a chair that’s too high could spoil the moment, and embarrass a visiting world leader and his or her host, the Philippines. 

Beyond agenda and statements, the Philippines has to attend to a myriad of details to ensure its successful hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit from November 18 to 19.  (READ: APEC what? An explainer on Manila’s high-profile week)

From securing US President Barack Obama to knowing what Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak cannot eat, the nitty gritty impacts on the impression the capital Manila makes on 20 world leaders, and 7,000 delegates.

The pressure is on for former ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr, director general of the APEC National Organizing Council. Yet the former protocol chief to ex-presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo told Rappler that the Philippines can and will get the job done.

“There’s no substitute for preparation. If you have prepared well enough then the likelihood for something falling along the way is less. It bodes well for proper hosting. We, as a people, have one thing going for us. We are naturally hospitable so hosting is second nature,” said a smiling and calm Paynor, just days before the region’s largest economic gathering. 

What exactly do preparations for an event of this scale entail? Paynor takes Rappler behind the scenes of APEC, and walks us through the diplomatic, cultural, and religious considerations involved in welcoming the decision-makers of the Pacific Rim. 

HEAD ORGANIZER. Former Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr is director general of the APEC National Organizing Council. He was protocol chief to former Philippine presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Photo by Franz Lopez/Rappler

Who sits where? 

Does Chilean President Michelle Bachelet enter the dining area first? Should Chinese President Xi Jinping sit beside former Taiwanese vice president Vincent Siew? Is the longest serving leader the first to shake hands with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III? 

Questions like these are answered ahead of time in carefully choreographed events like the APEC summit. The economic forum follows the protocol where arrangements are usually done in alphabetical order, using the name of member economies, Australia first and Vietnam last. 

PRE-PLANNED. Chinese President Xi Jinping gestures as US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) look on at the end of a group photo of leaders of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies at Yanqi Lake, north of Beijing on November 11, 2014. Details in APEC like who sits and stands where are prepared well ahead of time. File photo by Greg Baker/AFP

Paynor said that the Philippines as host can, for example, seat the leaders in alternating alphabetical order in a roundtable, with Aquino as reference point. What is important is to be able to explain any decision. 

“They will ask: ‘Who’s on my left? Who’s on my right?’ Because they have to prepare talking points. If China is on your right, and Peru is on your left, you would have different talking points for each. If you switch places, your index cards will have to change. So we have to be mindful of these details,” said the former Philippine ambassador to Israel and Cyprus. 

Paynor, who handled hundreds of outgoing and incoming foreign visits for Ramos and Arroyo, said the dynamics in multilateral meetings like APEC is different. The gathering is also unlike the visit of Pope Francis to the Philippines in January, where Paynor was also director-general of the National Organizing Committee. 

In APEC, organizers are dealing with 20 other leaders whose delegations’ requests range from added interpreters to doctors. 

“The requests are mostly about access – how can they get in touch with their leaders if they need to talk to them – so we provide access passes but you have to limit it because if you allow one to two, that’s already 42 people. Even if they say they are asking for only two, that means 42 for us because it’s always times 21,” Paynor said in reference to the APEC membership. 

Even the height of chairs is a concern, to avoid discomfort and an unflattering photo. 

MEETINGS GALORE. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at the APEC Summit plenary session at the International Convention Center, Yanqi Lake, in Beijing on November 11, 2014. Meetings like these require logistical preparations from interpreters to security personnel. File photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AFP

‘Time very, very important’ 

Paynor said that the top requests have to do with security, the biggest challenge for organizers.  

“You can understand that the US president will have X number of security people. The New Zealand prime minister might have maybe just 4 or 6 whereas another one will have an entire group.” 

Security is also the reason why officials have to stop traffic in Manila’s infamously jammed roads. The heads of economies have only practically 48 hours to spare in the Philippines. 

“The time of our leaders is very, very important. Therefore, they cannot be, should not be, affected by the traffic. The only way to do that is there are no other cars on the road. Some of our economies here, it’s part of their requirement that when their leader is moving, there should be no other vehicles moving,” said Paynor, a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy. 

‘The most important thing in any hosting is be sure you do not offend your guest.’

– Former Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr on why the Philippines will not bring up the South China Sea during the APEC summit


Political and religious sensitivities are another consideration. In APEC, the leaders of China and Taiwan, called Chinese Taipei, are not seated beside each other. Beijing and Taipei have been political rivals since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949. 

Taiwanese media reports that Taiwan’s national leader, President Ma Ying-jeou, is usually invited to the meeting but is “barred” from actually attending because of Beijing’s opposition. A special envoy is sent, referred to as “representative of the leader of the Chinese Taipei economy.” 

In preparing food, organizers ask ahead of time about allergies and religious restrictions. It is standard practice to serve only fish and beef in international meetings for Muslim delegates. 

“For the most part, we don’t serve pork but in one ASEAN summit before, one member said, ‘Can we have a lechon (roast pork) room because two-thirds of the membership are non-Muslim?’ I said, ‘Of course!’ So I ordered a lechon room to be prepared, and it had more people than the other dining room. The Muslim guests were not offended because it was a separate room,” Paynor said. 

Knowing cultural practices and anticipating the needs of guests are part of being an effective host. 

“I told our staff assigned to Papua New Guinea: ‘Your number one priority is to ensure that when the delegates arrive, you give them betel nut,” Paynor said. 

“Chewing betel nut is part of their culture. Because you can’t easily get that, you have to go to the local market. Instead of them doing that, it’s best that you be the one to find it. That is hospitality. You should know these things.” 

'PERFECT HOST.' Philippine President Benigno Aquino III (left) vows to be a 'perfect host' to all leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping (right). The Philippines and China are locked in a dispute over the South China Sea. File photo by Greg Baker/AFP

PNoy and the Pinoy as host 

The Philippines has gone a long way from hosting APEC in 1996. The attention to detail was one lesson it learned the hard way when it first hosted the high-level business event in Subic. A clogged toilet in the leaders’ hall then would not flush.  

Paynor said: “What’s a busted toilet? We don’t even talk about it. But if it’s a busted toilet for leaders? We fixed it immediately.” 

In APEC, President Aquino will be host-in-chief, on top of holding 11 bilateral meetings at the sidelines of the summit. With this being Aquino’s 6th and last APEC, Paynor said the President is at ease in big international meetings. 

“He knows the drill. He participates. He’s usually a listener but he also makes interventions when necessary.” 

Paynor said the cardinal rule in hosting is: “Don’t offend your guest.” This is why the South China Sea dispute is off the agenda when China’s Xi visits the Philippines for APEC. This week, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Aquino and Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario ahead of the summit, the first meeting after two years of exchanging criticism on the sea row. 

PEOPLE AFFECTED. Filipino health workers gather informal settlers at a street near the venue of the upcoming APEC summit in Manila, Philippines, November 9, 2015. Photo by Francis Malasig/EPA

As for Filipinos, the APEC meeting in Boracay island in May showed how the hosts managed to finish the agenda ahead of time, and go out and party after. “We are serious at work, and serious at play.” 

With all the preparations geared towards the world leaders, organizers face criticism from commuters, motorists, employees, and vendors who are inconvenienced by APEC. The Philippines declared a 4-day holiday for government employees, and two days for the private sector. (READ: Road closures, alternate routes for APEC summit)

Manila residents will have to deal with even more monstrous traffic in a city declared to have the “worst traffic on Earth,” according to popular navigation app Waze. There, too, are flight cancellations at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, which used to rank among the worst airports in the world. 

Paynor appealed to Filipinos to understand why the country has to bend over backwards for its guests. 

“I ask all of our citizens to make sure they look at this from the proper perspective. They are our visitors. Let’s give them what’s due them the way we would respect our own visitors when people come to visit us,” he said.  

With the red carpet rolled out, can – and will – the Philippines extend the same courtesy to its own people? – 

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