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MANILA, Philippines – Manila was the first in a whirlwind three-city trip by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock to different cities in Southeast Asia.
Her visit to the region, according to the German Information Center Southeast Asia’s video wrap, was meant to “reaffirm the deep and longstanding bilateral ties” between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Singapore.
While in Manila, Baerbock met with President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo.
The German minister also spoke to members of Philippine political and civic society, including Rappler founder and CEO Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, and chief Rodrigo Duterte critic former senator Leila de Lima, who was detained for over six years.
In this interview, Baerbock answers questions touching on the South China Sea, international law, trade ties between Germany and the Philippines, as well as the state of human rights in the Philippines under the President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
(Editor’s Note: This interview was made on the occasion of Bearbock’s visit to the Philippines on January 11, 2023. We have published all of the Minister’s answers in full.)
The situation in the South China Sea, especially within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), seems to be getting more tense. A month ago was, perhaps, the most tense weekend out in the West Philippine Sea yet, with China Coast Guard ships using water cannons in two Philippine missions to Bajo de Masinloc and Ayungin Shoal. What does Germany make of the situation in our waters? Is there a sense that this could escalate into a full-blown conflict?
Rough winds literally blow over the South China Sea – rough to a degree that they regularly reach the news pages in Europe, too. Recent incidents in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone due to unsafe Chinese maneuvers are not only a risk to the freedom and safety of navigation in the South China Sea. An escalation in one of the main arteries of international trade would have massive consequences, also for Germany. Our position is very clear: all actions that are not in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and that could lead to increased tensions, unintended escalations, or miscalculations must end immediately.
Germany regularly calls for the respect of international law, including UNCLOS and the 2016 arbitral award. What does this mean, in practical terms, in the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea/the West Philippine Sea?
Germany has been vocal about this for a long time, because it is a question of credibility and trust not to look away when international law is at stake. The UN Charter and international law are holding our world together – something the law of the strongest will never do. This is what UNCLOS stands for as the universal legal framework for all activities in the oceans and the seas. Its arbitral award from July 2016 is not only very clear and unambiguous but also legally binding. Historical maritime claims in the area, for instance concerning maritime areas around Second Thomas Shoal, are unfounded.
But it is not just words. Germany is increasing its presence in the Indo-Pacific and contributing to strengthening maritime security and resilience. In the Philippines, for example, we are supporting the coast guard with reconnaissance drones and training.
In the last quarter of 2023, the world saw for itself the carnage caused by the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, and then it saw, in real time, the suffering of Palestinians have had to suffer following Israel’s fight in Gaza. I bring this up because, several times, calls from experts and amateurs alike to uphold international law and respect human rights have been louder than ever. There is, understandably, a sense of cynicism now, too, over the faith we place in international law and a rules-based order. What can you say to those who see these rules and these laws as futile in light of the suffering we see in Gaza and, to a much lesser degree, the continued aggressive actions of the PRC in the West Philippine Sea?
I would say: Don’t fall for easy answers or for the cynics. In a complex world, a wider perspective is more important than ever. There is incredible suffering on both sides. I have just been on my fourth visit to the region since October 7th. Hamas humiliated, tortured, abducted and murdered innocent people in Israel with breathtaking brutality on October 7th. Four individuals from the Philippines also fell victim to the terrorists. My sincere condolences go out to their relatives.
Constant attacks on Israel, coming from at least three directions – Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis – are still ongoing. And there are still more than 100 innocent people abducted from their homes and held hostage in Gaza.
Israel has the right to defend itself and its people, in accordance with international law, like any other country in the world would do in the face of such horrendous terrorism. Acknowledging this does not at all mean exempting Israel from its obligation under international law to avoid human suffering as much as possible. Together with our partners, we are putting all our efforts into ending the suffering – for both Israelis and Palestinians – by calling on Israel to allow humanitarian aid to enter Gaza, by calling on Hamas to release all hostages and to lay down its weapons, so that we can come to a sustainable ceasefire.
A very different topic, but very important for the Philippines and for Germany: The Triple Win program, of course, is well in place. What opportunities await skilled Filipinos – nurses, especially – in Germany?
It is no secret: There is an acute shortage of skilled workers in Germany, particularly in the healthcare sector. Thousands of trainees and professionals from the Philippines are already doing fantastic work, caring for elderly and sick people from Berlin to Munich. We are very grateful to these women and men for doing this important work far away from their families. Like Lolita Echaluse, a young woman from the Philippines whom I met during a roundtable organized by the Technical Education Skills Development Authority of the Philippines. She has already been living in Southern Germany for seven years and told me that the beginning was quite tough: not only because of the German language, but also because of bureaucracy. She would have liked to have been better prepared. Now, she calls Germany her home.
Such positive experiences could clearly inspire many more Filipinos to come to Germany – and us to welcome many more Filipinos. By the way, in technical professions too.
Our benchmark for the recruitment of skilled workers is fairness and sustainability. It guarantees a fair and transparent placement process and safe jobs so that people can build their lives in Germany. Furthermore, the German law makes sure that foreign nursing staff are granted the same rights and conditions as German nursing staff. We have also learned our lessons regarding better preparation for those who want to come to Germany.
On the flip side, a huge concern for the Philippines is the shortage of healthcare professionals here. President Marcos has said we’re the victims of our own success. Would it be fruitful for countries like Germany to assist the Philippines there, too? As in, aside from looking for talent here to bring overseas, make sure that skilled Filipinos have employment opportunities here, too.
As you mention the “Triple Win” program, I should point out that it benefits three sides: employers, both countries involved, and individual professionals. We are doing everything we can to make sure that our cooperation does not lead to a brain drain, but rather becomes a benefit for the labor market and education system in the Philippines as well. With the federal government’s “Global Skills Partnerships” project, Filipino nursing students receive linguistic and professional preparation. Partner universities from both countries work together to exchange teaching and learning methods. This also strengthens the training of skilled workers for the domestic labor market in the Philippines. And we are increasingly focusing on circular migration – that means people are trained, could stay a few years in Germany, and after gaining some experience can go back and share their knowledge to strengthen their own national health care system.
In addition, German companies have been actively involved in dual vocational training schemes for decades – for example training mechatronics engineers for the Philippine labor market.
COP28 just concluded – the perception of its outcomes has been mixed. Some would point out that in an attempt to please all sides, the outcomes satisfied neither. In particular, there was some disappointment in merely promising to “transition away” from fossil fuels instead of phasing them out. Germany has seen success in its move to transition to more renewable sources of energy, what role does it intend to play in helping developing countries – the Philippines included – achieve the same success?
For the very first time the world has agreed at COP28 to put an end to fossil energy and to push for renewable energies. From our own experience we know that it cannot be done overnight and you have to make sure to provide social security and support schemes to the most affected regions and countries in the transition phase.
With its ambitious climate targets, the Philippines can lead the way. Ramping up renewables will help to bring down energy prices in the Philippines, which are currently the second highest in Asia. And Germany stands ready to contribute, for example through funding provided by our International Climate Initiative.
But I know that, especially for vulnerable low-lying island states or an archipelago like the Philippines – a country that contributes so little to global emissions – the COP28 consensus doesn’t go far enough. In Dubai I saw the tears of disappointment of representatives of some of the most vulnerable states. We owe it to them to keep up the momentum and to deliver results. The loss and damage fund we’ve created for the most vulnerable countries will contribute to this. This, too, was an important symbol of solidarity from COP28.
The Philippines intends to be a hub for critical mineral and even renewable energy system production in anticipation of the world’s shift to renewable forms of energy. Does Germany intend to be a partner in that push, too? How?
Yes, of course. The EU has passed a Critical Raw Materials Act, which is to enter into force in the coming weeks. It will help create more strategic partnerships: Our aim is to achieve a model of cooperation that benefits both sides equally and creates value chains for local development in our partner countries.
Since the war on drugs was launched under former President Rodrigo Duterte, much attention has been placed on the state of human rights in the Philippines. Marcos promised a more rehabilitative approach. What do you make of the state of human rights now?
Obviously the change of course on the war on drugs was highly needed. I was very honored to meet Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa and former Senator de Lima. When I travel around the world as a female Foreign Minister I see what autocrats fear the most: the voices of strong women, and freedom of the press. These women’s full rehabilitation will be a strong message not only for the Philippines, but also for women around the world and human rights in general. – Rappler.com