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MANILA, Philippines – Lawmakers confirmed on Wednesday, September 28, the appointment of Enrique Manalo as the Philippines’ foreign secretary, paving the way for a career diplomat to steer the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) for the first time in nearly two decades.
Manalo, who held a two-month stint as acting secretary of the DFA in 2017, will now hold a full-time position leading an agency he served for over 40 years. Prior to Manalo’s appointment, the last time a career official was the Philippines’ top diplomat was from 2003-2004, with then foreign secretary Delia Albert.
During the continuation of his confirmation hearing on Wednesday, lawmakers grilled Manalo on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s foreign policy as well as his own vision for the DFA in the coming years.
In particular, questions involving the Philippines’ policy toward China dominated the two hearings, with concerns from senators and representatives ranging from the livelihood of fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, to oil and gas exploration in that area, as well as its implications on Manila’s treaty alliance with Washington.
On Marcos’ pronouncement during his inaugural State of the Nation that he would not preside over any process that would give up “even one square inch” of Philippine territory, Manalo said this included the country’s exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, where China also insisted on its claims to Philippine waters.
“We will challenge any claim by foreign power on any part of our territory,” Manalo said.
Manalo also reaffirmed that the Philippines would hold the landmark 2016 arbitral award and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea as the country’s twin anchors regarding its policy in the West Philippine Sea.
Asked about potential oil and gas activities, Manalo earlier said the Philippines expressed openness to start a fresh round of talks, after negotiations under the Duterte administration ended up in stalemate. But he underscored: “Whatever agreement is reached, we will not agree to anything which is inconsistent or against the Philippine Constitution.”
Speaking during the first round of questions in Manalo’s confirmation hearing last August 31, Senator Cynthia Villar asked Manalo what the DFA would do were China to insist on tapping natural resources in Philippine waters in the event no agreement on joint exploration is reached.
“I think ma’am, that might cause an incident,” Manalo said, adding, “I hope China does not try because it will not only have an effect on that area. It would have political and foreign policy consequences. China has never suggested they would try because I think they know that may not only involve the Philippines but certainly other countries.”
Manalo was referring to the Mutual Defense Treaty between the Philippines and the United States, which bounds both sides to defend one another in case of an attack. Since 2019, US officials had clarified and repeatedly pronounced that the military deal covered the South China Sea.
On international criticism surrounding the state of human rights in the Philippines, Manalo said that the Philippines wanted to push for a “cooperative,” rather than “confrontational” approach as he cited the country’s UN joint human rights program – an outcome of a 2020 Human Rights Council resolution to provide the Philippines with technical cooperation to solve human rights problems, including killings in former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs.
“It’s the only one in the word and it shows the Philippines is fully cooperative and transparent in the way we deal with human rights issues,” Manalo said.
“That is the kind of approach we are also taking nowadays…. If countries feel there are gaps in the human rights approach, countries should help other countries to undertake the necessary programs to address that,” he added.
Manalo’s appointment is significant because career diplomats, who have undergone grueling exams and mastered diplomacy – a complex field that requires knowledge of history, politics, and international relations – have always wanted one of their own to lead the foreign service.
In previous administrations, political appointees were tapped as foreign secretaries.
Under his leadership, Manalo said he envisioned “more resilient, service-oriented and astute foreign service.”
“I’ll try to increase the professionalism in the approach to issues and problems. And to try our best in developing some kind of spirit where can help our country and at the same time take pride in the fact that we are trying to help the country,” he said. “In other words, I want to give a higher profile to the Philippines through the Department of Foreign Affairs.”
Since taking his oath before Marcos last July 1, Manalo has already instituted changes in the DFA that pointed to his thrust to professionalize the agency, including the designation of a spokesperson – the first in nearly four years and the first female to hold the post in 18 years – along with a roster of undersecretaries who were all career officials of the agency.
Lawmakers later praised Manalo and expressed confidence in his capability to chart the Philippines’ relations and implement Marcos’ foreign policy.
Before becoming foreign secretary, Manalo served as the DFA’s undersecretary for policy from August 2007 to February 2010, under then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and again from April 2016 to March 2017, under the administrations of the late former president Benigno Aquino III and Duterte.
Manalo graduated from the University of the Philippines with an economics degree. He joined the DFA in 1979 and is the son of two ambassadors. – with reports from Paterno Esmaquel/Rappler.com