Sui Generis

Manalo on the US-Japan-Philippines partnership beyond Marcos

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Manalo on the US-Japan-Philippines partnership beyond Marcos
‘It’s not something that would readily be affected by any change in [our] administration’

The sizzling summer heat crept into the lobby of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) building. The centralized air-conditioning was malfunctioning, with parts of the 52-year-old building feeling like an oven.

It was the afternoon of April 29, our scheduled interview with Enrique Manalo, the Philippines’ secretary of foreign affairs.

Mercifully, the library was spared from air-conditioning troubles. It became our waiting room.

It made me empathize with the DFA, swamped with work as it is now on the frontlines of President Marcos Jr.’s vigorous diplomacy. The DFA has prepared for visits of heads of state and ranking government officials from various countries to Manila as well as Marcos’s numerous foreign trips

At the conference room adjoining Manalo’s office, where the interview was to take place, electric fans whirred as the air-con weakly puffed out air. Literally, Manalo was going to be on a hot seat.

But the DFA head was chill. He asked if he could look at his notes during the interview – which he ended up not doing. An aide asked Manalo to stand so he could fix his boss’ creased barong.

The staff said we had about 40 minutes for the interview, a long time in the hectic schedule of the foreign secretary.

Manalo is only the second career diplomat to head the DFA in 20 years. Before reaching the top, he served the DFA for over 40 years.

Bea Cupin, our senior reporter covering foreign affairs and security, joined me in the interview. Manalo talked to us about a range of issues, from the future of the Philippines’ cooperation with Japan and the US to disinformation from China.

Here are some highlights:

Diversifying security cooperation

Q: A core aspect of President Marcos’s foreign policy is to diversify security cooperation. What are the specific goals of the government?

Manalo: We have been reaching out to many countries to develop more partnerships, not only on security, unless we take security from a broad angle: defense security, economic security. We feel in today’s world, with fast-changing events, it’s important to develop and strengthen traditional partnerships and open up relations and cooperation with non-traditional partners.

This policy is not limited to only one region. We’re expanding to other regions. For example, the EU.  We’re also now considering expanding cooperation with countries in the Pacific – as well as the importance that we’re now giving enhancing cooperation with countries in Africa. This is…an approach which is really global in nature.

Q: Is this also an effort to lessen dependence on our main treaty ally, the US?

Manalo: This thing is to try and spread out cooperation with all countries, and to try and ensure greater security and resilience by being in a position to adapt in case of changes. So, for example, if you have traditional partners in one way, and if anything happens, it’s important that you have other alternatives.  It’s really aimed at increasing our options in today’s world.

Q: Informally, Japan has proposed trilateral cooperation with India and the Philippines. What are the prospects of this kind of cooperation?

Manalo: Frankly, no one has proposed it to me yet. I mean, I’ve heard [it from] others, but I haven’t heard it from Japan or India. In our policy today, we don’t rule out anything as long as it’s consistent with our national interest and if we see benefits from such cooperation.

Future-proofing trilateral cooperation

Q: Have there been discussions on how to future-proof the US, Japan, and Philippines trilateral cooperation? There are worries…in the US if Trump returns to the White House.

Manalo: I can’t speculate on that, but, at this stage, as you could see from the vision statement, essentially it was almost 90% concerning economic cooperation and projects…. It’s important to ensure that some of these activities take off soon. And I think that can only be done through some form of regular meetings…. This should be done at expert levels or senior official levels. We are already beginning.

Q: Even with a change in leadership in the Philippines, are you confident that this momentum of our partnership with the US and Japan will continue?

Manalo: I’m confident because we share similar views and interests…. We are all committed to free and open trade, free and open navigation, and commitment to democracy…. It’s not something that would readily be affected by any change in administration…. These basic interests go beyond any particular administration.

China’s propaganda

Q: There’s a lot of disinformation and propaganda from China…. What is the purpose of all this dredging up of so-called secret deals?

Manalo: It could be to distract us…. We’re trying to bring the truth out there. One common theme is that we hope China realizes that many of the actions we are taking are for our national security and not in the context of a US-China competition. We’re doing it for our own needs.

I invite you to watch the full interview here

Let me know what you think. Please email me at –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.