Breach in protocol over PH presidential flag during Xi’s state visit

Jodesz Gavilan
Breach in protocol over PH presidential flag during Xi’s state visit
The lone presence of the Chinese flag during the welcome ceremony and review of the guards by the 2 presidents is unlike any other state visit

MANILA, Philippines – The sight of the lone Chinese flag behind Presidents Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping as they made their way past the honor guards in Malacañang on Tuesday, November 20, caught the eye of not a few. 

Many noticed the absence of the Presidential Standard – the flag that bears the official coat of arms of the President of the Philippines. It is present wherever the chief executive is present, especially during the review of guards. 

It is, after all, “one of the oldest official protocol [practices],” said historian and former Presidential Communications undersecretary Manuel Quezon III. 

“The Presidential Standard is carried as a symbol of command, of civilian supremacy over the military, and as the personal flag of the commander in chief who is the president,” he told Rappler.

Protocols, however, are often changed depending on the sitting president. 

“Presidents, of course, while expected to maintain tradition, can always break with tradition. It can be a dramatic statement with deep meaning, without having to say anything,” Quezon tweeted.

Rappler reviewed at least 77 state visits of world leaders to the Philippines – from the administration of Manuel Quezon to Benigno Aquino III to get a sense of what they did during welcome ceremonies.  

Under the Duterte administration, the absence of the Philippine presidential flag and lone presence of the guest’s country flag (that of China) during the welcome ceremony and review of the guards for Xi was unlike any other state visits. 

The Philippine presidential flag was present during the review of the honor guards for Brunei Sultan Hassanah Bolkiah and Indonesian President Joko Widodo – who went on state visits in April 2017. 

Indonesian President Joko Widodo's state visit in April 2017. Photo by Rappler  

Brunei Sultan Hassanah Bolkiah's state visit in April 2017. Screenshot from RTVM

Meanwhile, based on photographs and videos accessed from archives, only 3 patterns were noticeable during the welcome ceremonies and review of honor guards: 

  1. There was no flag behind the two leaders
  2. Only the Philippine presidential flag was present
  3. Both flags of the Philippine president and the visiting leader’s country were present

There is no record of a past state visit when the only displayed flag behind the leaders as they reviewed the honor guards belonged to the guest. 

Then-president Benigno Aquino III chose to use his presidential flag during the 19 state visits under his administration.  

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There was a noticeable absence of flags – either the Philippine president’s or the visiting leader’s – behind the leaders as they made their way past the guards during the 13 state visits under then- president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

She, however, made use of the Philippine presidential flag during military events or when reviewing the honor guards before a trip abroad.

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It was the same with then-president Joseph Estrada who welcomed 3 leaders during their state visits. 

Ramos, meanwhile, was not consistent. He used only the Philippine presidential flag when receiving two leaders during their state visits while he used both of their flags in other instances. 

Then Chile president Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle in Manila in November 1995. Photo from Malacanang archives  

South African president Nelson Mandela in Manila in March 1997. File photo by AFP

There were 22 state visits to the Philippines during the 21-year rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos from 1965 to 1986. 

Based on photographs and videos accessed by Rappler covering at least half of these visits, Marcos displayed his presidential flag along with the flag of the visiting leader.

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Former presidents Diosdado Macapagal, Carlos Garcia, and Manuel Quezon also displayed their presidential flags at least once during state visits of their guests. 

Lone China flag under Duterte

The display of foreign flags in the Philippines is, of course, not prohibited but is subject to guidelines that put importance on the Presidential Standard and the Philippine flag.

Given the long-standing protocols governing the presidential flag during state visits, it’s not surprising that the sight of the Chinese flag being carried behind Duterte and Xi caught the ire of many Filipinos. 

This, amid a supposed blossoming relationship that is also putting at risk the country’s stakes in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: TIMELINE: Philippines-China relations under Duterte)  

“To substitute a foreign flag is to very obviously relinquish symbol of command and substitute it with the symbol of sovereignty of another nation,” Quezon said.  

“When a long-established custom is dispensed with, even if ostensibly as a sign of favor, it is liable to send the message of subordinating tradition to the objective of the moment, which, in this case, was to give maximum prestige to the visiting head of state,” he added. – with reports from Pia Ranada/

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and also hosts the weekly podcast Newsbreak: Beyond the Stories. She joined Rappler in 2014 after obtaining her journalism degree from the University of the Philippines.