MANILA -- Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayeano touted the country's "debut" in the international scene as one of the major highlights of the agency this year.

"Suddenly, the Philippines is not just the president or the country in the room but we're relevant, we're being listened to," said Cayetano.

Within 12 months, 2017 witnessed the Philippines' chairmanship to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summits and related meetings. It also saw President Rodrigo Duterte engaging dialogue partners, both traditional and non-traditional, through productive state visits.

According to Cayetano, what was once a goal to reposition the foreign policy to “rebalance" ties has now gained footing.

This, with successful engagements with traditional allies, such as the United States, Japan and non-traditional, China and Russia.
"Our ’friends to all, enemy to none’ has produced results in economy, in investments, in tourism and other sectors," he told reporters recently.

For his part, newly appointed DFA Undersecretary Ernesto Abella said the Philippines is "being listened to, now".

"Apparently the opinion of the Philippines matters now, we're finding our place in the table, for example, our leadership in ASEAN was very distinct," he told the Philippine News Agency (PNA) in an interview.

"The government upped its game, it's no reflection upon the past necessarily but definitely in terms of performance, it has improved."

"The fact that US President Donald Trump recognized the Philippines as prime piece of real estate, it's something to that effect," he added. "Largely we're not being ignored, in other words we're being recognized as participants in the economic scene."

Independent foreign policy

In the early months of Duterte's stay in Malacanang, his move to present a Philippine "independent foreign policy" was observed as a pivot to Beijing at the expense of Manila's longstanding partner, Washington.

The chief executive's caustic tone against the former US administration last year has turned harmonious with strengthened bilateral cooperation under the Trump administration.

On Dec. 28, days before the year closes, US State Secretary Rex Tillerson said both countries are in agreement to further enhance ties.

Citing a phone call with Cayetano, he said the two foreign ministries are in sync on opposing the unlawful nuclear and missile program in the Korean Peninsula, as well as hoping for the speedy rehabilitation of Marawi City.

"Both sides agreed to work to increase bilateral cooperation under the US-Philippines alliance and other pressing issues in 2018," he said.

Last November, Trump met with Duterte in Manila, discussing a broad range of shared interests and priorities.

Both leaders praised the "enduring" Philippines-US alliance, confirming the departure from tensioned diplomacy between the two states as displayed in 2016.

New chapter in bilateral ties

As the country widely opened its arms to Russia, Ambassador Igor Khovaev earlier said the two states are "on the right track" in pursuing partnership.

In May, Duterte held a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin while in October and November, two other high-level officials embarked on a historic visit to the Philippines, one being Russian Defense Secretary General Sergey Shoygu and the second highest official in the federation, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

These engagements were referred to as moves marking a new chapter in Philippine-Russian ties.

During the bilateral talks of Duterte and Prime Minister Medvedev, the Philippines and Russia inked eight agreements on trade and energy, among others.

The agreements signed include the Treaty on Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters; the Treaty on Extradition; the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on Cooperation between the Department of Energy and the State Atomic Energy Corp. “Rosatom” of the Russian Federation; the MOU on Cooperation in the Field of Mass Communication; the MOU on the Development of Cooperation in Transport Education; the MOU between the Philippines’ Commission on Higher Education and the Russian Federation’s Ministry of Education and Science; the MOU between the Intellectual Property Office of the Philippines and the Russian Federation’s Federal Service for Intellectual Property; and the Agreement on Cooperation between the Philippines’ Commission on Audit and the Accounts Chamber of the Russian Federation.

Prior to the signing, the Russian government also handed over 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles and military supplies to help in the country's counterterrorism efforts.

Golden age of strategic partnership

Meanwhile, one of the landmark visits of the chief executive was in Japan.

In October, he met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and witnessed the signing of the exchange of notes for the Cavite Industrial Area Flood Risk Management Project.

In a summit meeting with Abe, the two leaders discussed various areas of cooperation, such as infrastructure development, support for Mindanao, anti-illegal drug measures, and counter-terrorism measures, while exchanging views on regional and international affairs.

To cap the visit, the Philippines and Japan issued the “Joint Statement on Bilateral Cooperation for the Next Five Years”, which emphasized the latter's intention to steadily implement its contribution totaling 1 trillion yen over the next five years through public and private sector efforts.

After extending "maximum support" to the Philippines, particularly on the rebuilding of war-ravaged Marawi City, Duterte said Tokyo and Manila have entered a "golden age of strategic partnership".

Rekindling, engaging

For its part, China is now thawing frozen ties with the country following an existing sea dispute, by increasing efforts to enhance engagement with the Philippines.

Territorial row in the South China Sea is still a standing issue for claimants in the region, but to begin resolution, Manila and Beijing chose to address involved areas bilaterally.

In May 2017, the two established a bilateral consultative mechanism (BCM) on the South China Sea, in which the second meeting is expected to start first quarter of 2018.

According to Cayetano, while this signals the "rekindling" of China and the Philippines’ relationships, the government will not give up an inch of the country's territories.

"We never said that we will not pursue our territorial and sovereignty rights, we never said that we will back down, what we said is we will put it in order of perspective," he told reporters early December.

After 15 years of being stalled, the framework of the binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea was approved during the ASEAN Summit held in Manila.

Following its adoption, China and ASEAN agreed to hold COC negotiations next year.

The COC is a more binding edict enshrined in the 2002 Declaration of Conduct, which is aimed at reducing tensions in the region and prevent claimant-countries, such as China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei from aggressively pursuing their claims.

Changes underway

As the department strives to implement the chief executive's foreign policy, Cayetano also noted improvements it aims to achieve within the agency.

In 2017, the DFA served three secretaries.

After former Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. failed to hurdle the Commission on Appointments, current Undersecretary for Policy Enrique Manalo assumed the role as Acting Secretary. In May, Cayetano took oath as the DFA chief.

Aside from changes in leadership, new Office of Strategic Communications headed by Undersecretary Ernesto Abella was also created.

"We're really going to give recommendations, certain changes at the DFA because from the 1990s to the time of President Benigno Aquino III, maraming tinanggal sa DFA na hindi nakita na DFA plays a role in security and plays a role in our image abroad," Cayetano said. "We're going to put up strategic office to help our cooperations abroad."

In the past, the DFA only has the following offices: Office of Undersecretary for Administration headed by Linglingay Lacanlale; Office of the Undersecretary for International Economic Relations headed by Manuel Antonio Teehankee; Office of the Undersecretary for Migrant Workers Affairs headed by Sarah Loue Arriola; Office of Undersecretary for Policy headed by Enrique Manalo; and Office of Undersecretary for Civilian Security and Consular Concerns under Jose Luis Montales.

Given that the new office is Undersecretary level and the current public relations arm of the agency or the Office of Public Diplomacy (OPD) is Assistant Secretary level, Cayetano said the latter will effectively be under the leadership of Abella.

Earlier, he also said a public announcement for the new spokesperson will come in January as the agency transitions its new public diplomacy team.

DFA Acting Spokesperson Robespierre Bolivar, currently serving as head of OPD, is expected to assume the role of Consul General at the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, Japan by the first quarter of 2018. (PNA)