[FIRST PERSON] Chito Sta. Romana through the eyes of a young diplomat

JJ Domingo
[FIRST PERSON] Chito Sta. Romana through the eyes of a young diplomat
'His approach to diplomacy was clinical and goal-oriented. His analysis was always akin to a doctor’s diagnosis: he would tell it as he thinks it is, without letting emotions affect his judgment.'

I had long known Ambassador Jose Santiago L. Sta. Romana, or Chito, to be the country’s foremost China hand even when I was still a college student. I was therefore a bit starstruck when I first met him in 2017 in a Japanese restaurant in Manila, a few weeks after he had signed the Embassy’s official request for my deployment to Beijing. What I remember from that first meeting was his unique take on President Duterte’s disposition on China.

The President’s attitude towards Beijing, he said, was likely driven by his Lyceum formation. I immediately understood what he meant. The young Duterte studied there under then Professor Jose Maria Sison at the time when the latter was mounting a Maoist “rectification” campaign against the orthodox Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas, resulting in an internal struggle within the local communist movement that mirrored the bigger Sino-Soviet split on the world stage. In the 1960s, Mao and his Cultural Revolution was in vogue among the college activists of Manila – and especially among the petit-bourgeois and working-class students of Lyceum – and this “China wave” framed “Red China” as the defender of subjugated nations against both American and Soviet imperialism. Indeed, Zhou Enlai was at the time a leading figure of the Bandung movement that eventually informed the creation of NAM and G77. This framing, Ambassador Chito posited, must have left a lasting imprint upon President Duterte’s psyche. In other words, he seemed to be saying, the President’s worldview is driven by his conscience.

This was a generous and sober analysis at a time when the prevailing impression among the mainstream commentariat was that the new administration’s so-called “China pivot” – undertaken just immediately after our victory in The Hague – was a sell-out. Yet Ambassador Chito was not apologizing for the President. He was merely trying to understand where the President was coming from, with the view to understanding the prevailing circumstances available to us diplomats, who are in turn tasked with pursuing the Republic’s best interests within the parameters of those circumstances.

That was classic Ambassador Chito. His approach to diplomacy was clinical and goal-oriented. His analysis was always akin to a doctor’s diagnosis: he would tell it as he thinks it is, without letting emotions affect his judgment. Such stoic detachment gave him the presence of mind to focus on the goal with a surgeon’s precision.

I could sense that he developed this stoicism from his arduous journey as a student exile trapped in a foreign country for almost three decades. When he and his friends visited China as part of a student delegation in 1971, they thought they would stay there for only a few weeks. Put on the arrest list of the looming Marcos dictatorship that had just suspended the writ of habeas corpus, they decided to remain in China. Only after Marcos had fled the Philippines in 1986 did they manage to get their passports renewed.

In between, they saw China’s transformation from the immediate aftermath of Mao’s Cultural Revolution through Deng Xiaoping’s Reform and Opening Up. They then stayed in China and became the backbone of the international press there. Ambassador Chito distinguished himself not only for his reporting – particularly on the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 – but also for how he deftly operated in an environment that was difficult for foreign journalists.

I took every opportunity to absorb as many details as I could regarding how Ambassador Chito lived through, for instance, the death of Lin Biao in 1971, the meeting between Imelda and Mao in 1974, the downfall of the Gang of Four in 1976, and of course, Tiananmen. I asked him how he mastered Chinese, and how he worked in farming communes. I relished all his stories. On some occasions, I imagined myself being in his shoes. I knew that a lesser soul like me would not have survived what he went through. But Ambassador Chito was obviously cut above the rest. He came through all of it without any bitterness. Through the end, he remained an ardent believer in the inherent goodness of people. Walang masamang tinapay.

Among the diplomatic corps in Beijing, Ambassador Chito was a doyen of sorts. I saw how the envoys of the so-called great powers came to him for insights into the Chinese psyche, and counsel on how to manage their respective relations with China. He was, undoubtedly, our best Sinologist. Yet he remained down-to-earth. Whenever I consulted with him on any significant political development, he would always punctuate his superb analysis with the question, “But what do you think?” As if my expertise was at the same level as his.

He sincerely believed in diplomacy, but he also knew that it had to be backed by deterrence. He would occasionally quote Reagan: “Trust, but verify.” On a couple of occasions, he reminded me that the goal of every state is its own national survival – this is the big picture that is sometimes forgotten when emotions are high, and attentions become too focused on the tree rather that the forest. He always took the long view. I once asked him what he thinks the end game would be in the South China Sea. In jest, he said something along the lines of, well, we just have to keep what we have and hold our line until such time that borders have become obsolete. In other words, until the end of history.

I will always be grateful to Ambassador Chito for allowing us young officers to interpret China’s rise through our own lenses. He gave us a very long leash, encouraging us to go about developing our Beijing network – sometimes he would even introduce us to his own contacts – and writing our cables freely. Not once did he reject my draft, even if sometimes he had yet to fully agree with some of its conclusions. He would even be apologetic when correcting a glaring mistake, or asking me to verify an information with another source first before sending the report.

From time to time, he would embarrass us career officers with his very deferential disposition towards the career foreign service. For we knew that it was him who deserved deference. He was, in so many ways, a national treasure. –

JJ Domingo served as political officer at the Philippine Embassy in Beijing from 2017 to 2020. He is currently assigned at the Philippine Mission to the United Nations in Geneva.