Press Briefing

Press Briefing by Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Santiago Sta. Romana

Event Press Briefing
Location Vienna Classic Hotel, Bo’ao, Hainan


AMB. STA. ROMANA: Tomorrow will be the opening of the Boao Forum for Asia. As you know, this is now the leading economic forum for Asia.

When this was originally conceived, former President Ramos was involved in this and in a sense, the basic idea was how to have a forum where top leaders in Asia and businessmen and academicians can meet together, together with other members of the international community to discuss — the focus would be on economic problems of Asia — the challenges and the prospects.

And in a sense, it was like an answer to the Davos Conference in the west, you know. Why not have one for Asia and they chose this island of Hainan, this fishing village of Boao, that’s how it became chosen and was… It grew over the years, over the decades actually.

And this will be an opportunity for President Duterte to showcase the Philippine economic achievements, the priorities of his administration, particularly in the sphere of business and economics, and to exchange views with other top leaders.

Aside from the Chinese President, the Singaporean Prime Minister will be here because Singapore is now the chair of ASEAN.

The Pakistani Prime Minister will also be here as well as the Mongolian Prime Minister. Then you have also representatives from Europe, from Austria.

So it’s actually… and the top, the UN Secretary General will be attending, together with Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.

So as you could see, it’s gonna be a gathering of top leaders and I think it’s quite a privilege for President Duterte to be invited here and to be able to use this platform to highlight the remarkable progress that has been achieved in the Philippines and as well as to explain his economic priorities, you know, the infrastructure program, and an opportunity to exchange experiences and best practices with China, with other Asian countries, as well as with the UN and IMF leader. Go ahead, shoot your questions.


Q: Do you think the South China Sea dispute will be discussed during the forum, considering that the issue has economic implications also?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Actually there is a special panel on the South China Sea issue that will be conducted as part of the Boao Forum.

If you look at the program, there is a special — there’s a special panel on this on the 11th and there are representatives from the different Southeast Asian countries, mostly diplomats and academic experts.

I think from the Chinese side, Professor Wu Shicun, the head of the China’s Center for South China Sea Studies will be there as well as former Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying.

These two were the ones I met, together with former President Ramos during the 2016 Hong Kong talks, the icebreaker talks, and they’ve been involved in the South China Sea issue. So that will be done in a panel.

It is not the focus of the forum itself but it is an annual, it’s a topic every year.

Again, it’s how to discuss the issue and to look for ways of possible solution, areas of cooperation once solutions have been pursued.

There will be a Filipino diplomat present at that — a representative from the Philippine Embassy will be involved in that discussion together with former Energy Secretary Popo Lotilla. Well, he’s invited to attend there so they’re holding it in another place.

Tomorrow itself, when the President speaks, it will be part of the opening session and usually this will be the… all the — the Chinese President will lead, of course; the Philippine President will have his chance and then the other top leaders will be there as well as the UN Secretary General.

So I think it will be a part of the discussion, particularly the economic implications. But the main focus really is how to maintain the growth trajectory of Asia because Asia now is a major source of global economic growth.

Amid all the fears of a trade war, it’s how to reiterate the need for globalization, or to maintain the open trading system and how to prevent protectionism from hampering the global economic growth.

Q: Sir, two questions. What particular program will, or policy will the President discuss in his speech during the opening plenary? And two, does the presence of the former Energy Secretary and the particular panel on the South China Sea indicate that there will be talks about possible joint exploration in the South China Sea?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Those are two separate points. On the President’s speech, of course I do not wish to preempt what the President will be saying. I think the final draft is being done and the President will be ready.

But from Undersecretary Teehankee’s press conference, the preview last Friday and from what we know of what the President has said, his theme usually is you know, his economic priorities — inclusive growth, poverty alleviation, promoting regional integration, and as well as encouraging more trade and more investment not only among Asian countries but also with the international community.

I think the President will be able to highlight his priority in terms of promoting inclusive growth through infrastructure building as well as promoting business-friendly policies and peace and order so as to have a good investment environment.

But most of all, I think, the President will concentrate on the big picture — on how to maintain peace and stability in the region, the importance of dialogue, and using diplomacy in order to achieve a peaceful solution to long-standing problems and while seeking solutions to solve the territorial claims and maritime disputes is how to find areas of cooperation and to be able to expand this in the coming years.

As for the panel, this is an annual panel and this is usually an area where, it’s like a track 1.5 or track 2 channel you know for… not only for government officials to discuss. But really, to be able to exchange ideas with the academicians and businessmen so that it becomes like a free-willing discussion on the South China Sea issue — on the progress that has been made as well as the challenges that still remain.

Q: Sir, on the President’s meeting with President Xi Jinping. May we know what’s the agenda and will the joint exploration be part of that, on how to advance it?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Okay. On the meet with President Xi Jinping, of course, the specific agenda I’m not at liberty to reveal because I don’t know the agenda myself. I’m helping in preparing it, of course.

But you can expect that the President will review the state of bilateral relations and he’s… he would be ready to discuss, you know, not only the challenges, which would include the disputes, but also, beyond that, the larger picture of how to further push forward the areas of cooperation with China.

As you know, the Philippine policy towards the South China Sea disputes or the West Philippine Sea dispute is basically like a two-track policy.

We have the contentious issues — who owns the Scarborough Shoal, who owns the Spratlys, you know, the Nine-Dash Line, arbitral tribunal. These are contentious issues on which we have differences of views with China, on which we use diplomacy, we use what is called the Bilateral Consultative Mechanism that has already met twice, May last year and just last February.

I was part of the Philippine panel. This is where we bring up the issues of reclamation, land reclamation, military — non-militarization, and the need for non-militarization, the whole issue of… that divides our two countries.

But the basic approach there is that we know that some of these issues will take time so we exchange views, we try to bridge our differences, at the same time, we try to look for areas of cooperation because aside from the contentious issues, there are other issues that are non-contentious, and this is the other track we follow — whether trade or investment, culture or art or science, technology.

Unfortunately in the past, when the dispute was put at the center, it affected the whole political atmosphere and a lot of the relations were frozen.

So now what we are doing is that we have, in a sense, defrost. We have restored the non-contentious areas and that is why you see trade booming, you see tourism booming.

There will be…  Ballet Philippines will come to China in August. There are scientific and educational exchanges happening.

So by following these two-track approach, where you accept there are differences, at the same time, that there are areas where you don’t have differences, you are able to promote it.

So back to your question, I think the President will be prepared to discuss the whole range of issues.

Of course, time is limited so I expect him to focus on the big issues, on the big picture, and basically it’s how to move, how to propel forward the friendship and cooperation between the Philippines and China as part of the President’s independent foreign policy, which is to make friends with everyone and to try to create no enemies as much as possible.

So while we maintain our traditional relationship with the US, with Japan, with our traditional partners, we try to expand our horizons by developing relations with China, with Russia, with India, and on the basis of good relations with our immediate neighbors and that is the meaning of ASEAN centrality and ASEAN unity.

So expect that although the time is limited, the President will try to use this opportunity to discuss the Philippines’ situation, to improve bilateral relations further, and to further seek understanding, deeper understanding with President Xi so that bilateral relations can move forward despite the challenges that we face.


Q: Sir, what will be the agreements to be signed by the two countries? Can you give us details?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: There are several agreements that would be signed tomorrow, we’ll have to wait for the final list but it will include an agreement to further deepen and broaden the economic relations.

There’s last minute work happening and if everything is done, we will have the final loan agreement on the Chico Dam Project. There are some minor details still being ironed out, but if everything works, the agreement to open, to hire more Filipino English teachers for China, to open the Chinese market.

And there are also agreements to basically, to improve the groundwork for more exchanges in the future.

The final list will be known soon because as of now, actually, there are some minor details that we’re still sorting out. But we’ll expect there are a couple of agreements to be signed.

We’ll give the details when the agreements are finally signed tomorrow.

Q: Sir, last lang. Doon sa joint exploration. May you share the status of this…?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: That is ongoing, the talks on joint exploration. There will be no agreement signed this time on the joint exploration.

I think the talks are still ongoing. We are trying to find a suitable legal framework that is acceptable to both sides.

The Philippine side is aware of certain parameters, you know, we have to be  — it has to be within our Constitutional requirements and our legal requirements and the Chinese also have their own parameters.

But there is political will on both sides to be able to move forward but it will not be at the Boao Forum.

What could happen will be a continuing discussion on this but I don’t… there will be no agreement to be signed on that regard this time.

Q: Sir, just to clarify. You mentioned that former Energy Secretary Lotilla will be at the —

AMB. STA. ROMANA: He’s somewhere around here. You have to find him.

Q: — the South China Sea Forum. Sir, what’s the specific agenda that he’s planning to discuss in that panel?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Well, you know, Secretary Lotilla has been one of those who has consistently attended and been invited to the Boao Forum, particularly when it came to the South China Sea issue. And no particular agenda, he’s coming on his own, it’s not at the behest of the government. He is now a… an academician and so he exchanges views based on his own experience and his own research.

As you know, he’s also a prominent lawyer, an international law expert so he’s aware of… certainly the Philippine side of the… on the argument, the Philippine claim. And so he is one of the leading experts on this and that’s why he’s invited to participate in this particular panel.

Q: Sir, is he involved in any way in hammering out the joint exploration agreements since he used to be with the Energy Department?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: He was involved in the past, under the Arroyo administration but right now, not that I know of.

But of course, you know the government right now, we seek ideas, from… whether friend or foe, critic or supporter, we study all the ideas, you know, and we look at the different points of view as we formulate our position.

We try to get all the possible perspectives because we know what — it has to stand public scrutiny, it has to be acceptable to the Filipino people and the basic point we’re trying to achieve is to find a way to be able to enhance our energy security, to solve our crying need for energy in a way that we can achieve it in a peaceful — with a peaceful and diplomatic solution so that we can finally explore and develop the resources that belong to us and avoid making it a source of conflict.

And this is what we’re trying to do and that is why we are exploring, you know, a suitable framework that will be acceptable to both sides.

Q: Sir, just one more question. You mentioned that the Philippines and China may sign an agreement to accept more Filipino English teachers. Sir, could you explain to us the situation here? How many English teachers does China need and how open are they to accepting Filipinos?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Right now, it is a case-by-case basis, you know.

Filipino teachers basically… there are Filipino teachers in China but they found the jobs on their own. You know, they sought it out and they are hired.

But there used to be a Chinese rule that excluded the Philippines as a legal source or as a source that they encouraged. They wanted to emphasize you know, what they called native speakers but they have relaxed it now.

Q: Because of our friendship?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: No, not because of that. Partly because of that but I think even before that, we noticed that they were allowing certain countries that were not strictly speaking native speakers but rather were former colonies of native speaking countries and so under that provision or under that— when they allowed that, it was very clear the Philippines was part of that, it could not be excluded.

So the friendship factor helped in the sense that… oh, they saw it. You know, that whereas before, in the period of contentious relations, you know, they did not discuss this or no, that’s not possible. They became more open.

So now they are more open, they are more accommodating and there’s growing need in China to learn English.

As a matter of fact, the next thing that we want, that we are discussing with China is the whole issue of the domestic helpers because the Chinese middle class is growing, they look at what’s happening in Hong Kong, and there is a growing demand for English-speaking helpers.

But of course, there are a lot of problems to be solved. You know, we want to make sure that they are covered by social security, you know, that they’re not subject to unfair rules. So we want the assurances.

And so that one, there is no agreement yet. It’s still being discussed by both sides.

But there is growing interest on the Chinese side, the Chinese, particularly the high-income Chinese. They’d like not just local helpers but foreign helpers.

And of course, there’s a lot of details still to be resolved because if the Chinese market open up to us, they have to open up to other foreign markets. You know, they have to balance their policy.

And from our point of view, we want assurance in terms of medical, you know, social security and other legal protection if ever we come to an agreement on this. But the potential is there and the demand is there. So the prospects are actually quite good.

Q: Thank you.

Q: Sir, aside from English teachers and domestic helpers, what other jobs are we looking to open for Filipinos here in China?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Well right now, actually the market’s already open for Filipino professionals.

International companies have hired a lot of Filipino engineers, there are advertising executives here. As you know, there are journalists here. There are a lot of your colleagues are working at China Central TV. There are more Filipinos now working here.

So on the professional level, actually the markets are open in terms of you know, because it’s an international market, you know, the international companies and some Chinese companies are also hiring.

So they are… I think the situation is already open. It’s a question now of just making sure that, you know, that we know where the opportunities are and that they are able to see the availability in the Philippines.

We need this… in the case of English teachers because for a while, there were some complaints that you know, it was difficult to be hired because of certain rules in China.

So now I think that has been cleared and in the case of domestics —

[power interruption]

Q: On another topic po. How are the trade tensions between China and the US factor in the discussions in the conference and number two sir, what role do you think the Philippines will play in this issue?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: I think because of the threat and actually the initial salvos we’re seeing in the trade war between the US and China, there will be… there is growing interest in the Boao Forum, BFA, what’s gonna be discussed tomorrow.

I understand President Xi will make a policy speech tomorrow because you know, this year is the 40th anniversary of China’s opening up, you know, 1978 when Deng Xiaoping declared opening up to now. It’s been 40 years.

So President Xi will make a policy speech, from what I understand, summing up the experience as well as his own policy direction in terms of economic reform and opening up.

And I think we’ll have a strong reaffirmation of the need for globalization. So because of this and because of the threat of the trade war, expect a lot of interest in tomorrow’s speech as well as the speeches of the top leaders, including President Duterte on what his comments will be, as well as that of the IMF Managing Director and the UN Secretary General.

So it will be a top heavy — as a matter of fact, it is how to maintain the focus, how to maintain the headlines on what President Duterte will say. That will be a challenge tomorrow because you’ll have a lot of voices.

But the main point is regarding the possibility of the trade war or the threat of a trade war.

I think what we want — what we don’t want to see is to be adversely affected and it is going to be a challenge because if a trade war brokes — breaks out, usually, generally speaking, there are no winners and it is hard for any winner to emerge and so we would also be affected.

So we are calling on — what we need to do is to call on restrain — on the US and China to go back to the negotiating table, to open talks and to try to resolve it through negotiations, to trade talks so as to avert a trade war and so as to prevent any fallout on the Philippines.

I think some of you may have seen, there are some reports that the Philippines could be adversely affected because some of our exports are part of the supply chain in the Chinese exports to the US.

So there is gonna be a negative impact on us and that’s why we’re very concerned about it and that is why this BFA Forum is very significant in terms of attracting international attention for the need to keep markets open, the need for globalization, as well as the need for preventing, you know, the protectionism to advance further, and this is already a growing threat that is looming on our heads. Yes?

Q: Do we already have a timeline on the crafting of the framework for the joint exploration?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Well I think the best estimate I’ve gotten is from Secretary Cayetano. That we’re trying to see if we can achieve an agreement. Hopefully within the next couple of months.

But as always, you know, negotiations you can never predict if it’s necessary to take a longer time, we’ll take our time as long as we can meet our objectives.

But if we can do it, and there is political willingness on both sides to try to achieve an agreement as soon as possible but it won’t be tomorrow.

Q: Okay. Any update on China’s bid to become the third telco in the Philippines?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Secretary Rio is coming, by the way as part of the delegation list and I don’t have any update for you.

I know there are challenges facing this issue. China Telecom stands ready to be part of it but you know, they have to form a joint venture and there are laws and I haven’t heard that they have already formed one. So I think it’s a work in progress at this point.

Q: They have to join the biddings, right?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: As part of the joint venture.

Q: No, the biddings because other countries are also interested to become the third telco?


Q: So they have to compete?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: But the third telco has to be a Filipino company. In other words a Filipino joint venture. Other countries can form their joint ventures and then they all have to bid under the rules and China telecom will also be part of a partnership or a joint venture that will participate in the bidding. That is what I know as of now.

Q: So they have not yet formed a partnership with a Filipino so far, the China telecom?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: You’ll have to check with Secretary Rio. I don’t know, I haven’t read in the news, or at least it hasn’t been announced in the news if they have.

Q: Because there were conflicting statements before. Others are saying that the President has chosen China already and they will have to tap Filipino partners whereas there are other claims that they have to join the bidding so…

AMB. STA. ROMANA: I think the rules have come out. They have to bid.

Q: Yeah. Thank you, Ambassador.

Q: Sir, can you confirm if former President Arroyo will be attending the Boao Forum?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: Yeah, yes, I understand she arrived last night. They arrived yesterday.

Q: What will be the extent of her involvement?

AMB. STA. ROMANA: She’s coming at the invitation of the Boao Secretariat.

As you know, former President Ramos, because of his… he’s already 90, he’s unable to… he’s cutting back on his travel. I think former President Arroyo may assume a seat in the Board.

I think she is running for a Board seat and she could take the position of former President Ramos.

So we’ll still have a Philippine representation in the Boao Secretariat, in the Boao Board if these things materialize.


SOURCE: PCOO – PND (Presidential News Desk)