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Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines Perfecto Yasay Jr. spoke with TASS in his exclusive interview about the results of his visit to Moscow, perspectives of the Philippine-Russian bilateral relationship, role of ASEAN in the world, prospects of cooperation of our countries in the area of law enforcement and fight against illegal drugs.
- Would you tell us what your chief objectives and takeaways were from your visit to Russia?
Principally, the objective of my trip was to prepare for the forthcoming visit of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to Russia and meeting with his counterpart Vladimir Putin on the basis of the invitation that was extended to our President by the Russian President during the APEC meetings in Peru last month.
Those preparations are important because we do not feel that the visit of our president should be merely ceremonial, that we would like to get into something more substantive within the view of fostering stronger and better ties with Russia, especially that this year we commemorate the 40th anniversary of our bilateral relationship. We have to work on this much stronger.
Moreover, it comes in a timely manner especially so that our president has reiterated and realigned our independent foreign policy where we really have to extend friendship and mutual understanding with all countries.
This independent foreign policy is anchored on the belief that there are many mutual interests between many other countries that we have to pursue – as of our contribution to promoting world stability and world peace, and at the same time also benefitting from these relationships. People have misunderstood this relationship as veering away from our friendship with the United States, which is not true. It is just that we want to make sure that we promote and foster amity between all nations including and especially with Russia.
- Could you comment on President Rodrigo Duterte’s imminent visit to Russia?
We have initially thought about going to Russia in March, but it might be too cold, we enjoy a much warmer climate. This is my first trip to Russia, while it has been really cold to my standards; we were greeted very warmly by our hosts graciously led by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. So we are talking about April or May of 2017. We had also hoped, that during this visit President Duterte would be able to come to Moscow and also take the opportunity and go to St. Petersburg.
- Could you shed a bit of light on the meetings you had during your visit to Moscow?
The meeting that I had with Foreign Minister Lavrov was supported by another meeting that we had between our Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana and his counterparts here in Russia. We are waiting for the results of that meeting, but again these meetings were intended to build on the previous achievements of my predecessors who had visited Russia in 2009 and in 2012; even our former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo came here in 2009. We would like to build on this. There are 27 or so pending draft agreements that we would like to move forward and we would hope that all of these agreements if not significantly all that very important to us will be finalized and signed during the President Duterte’s visit.
This would include a range of draft agreements in the area of economic and trade relationship, higher education cooperation; we also have agreements related to health cooperation, agreements in the area of security and defense cooperation. We are excited about it because within the next few days we will have a joint commission on economic cooperation, the delegation coming from Russia is going to the Philippines, so this is an opportunity for us to even explore further how these agreements can be finalized.
The trip of our Defense Secretary here is also to go over these draft agreements on security, joint security cooperation, defense cooperation with his counterparts here with the end in view again also of finalizing this during the visit of President Duterte when he comes here.
- What would you say are the most promising areas of current and future cooperation between our countries?
To us most important could really be economic and trade, even in the area of infrastructure development for us there are a lot that both Russia and the Philippines can benefit in this joint cooperation. In the area of agricultural trade relations I understand that Russia is also looking up other sources of agricultural products coming from the Philippines particularly which we could export here. Even in the area of fisheries – this would also be very important for the Philippines and Russia as well.
The joint security and defense cooperation is for us very, very important, especially as we are both interested in enhancing our countries’ capacities in the area of law enforcement and in the area of the fight against the illegal drugs, criminality and even terrorism. Therefore, there is a lot that we can benefit from Russia in terms of technical cooperation, exchange of information and such other assistance and support. We find it very important for us as well.
- Could Russia and the Philippines work together effectively to combat drug trafficking?
Yes, I think so. What we are really trying to build on is this agreement that we had, I think it was signed last year during the previous administration in the Philippines with respect to cooperation in the fight against illegal drugs. We are reviewing this thoroughly because we feel that especially Russia, that has extensive experience in preventing and interdicting the source of illegal drugs and along the line of enforcement against illegal drugs, this can be shared with us. This is something that we would like to benefit from.
We are also looking at the assistance and the joint cooperation with Russia in terms of preventing and interdicting the source of illegal drugs, particularly cocaine, opium. Like the Philippines Russia has also been a transshipment point for the illegal drugs. We would like to benefit from our mutual experience in this respect.
Because of this visit that I have here our respective government officials in the field of combatting drugs will be now meeting more frequently and closely for the purpose of seeing through not only the signing of the final agreement, based on this draft agreement that is pending, but also to explore and adopt mechanisms that will implement whatever agreement that we will be reaching during the visit of our president.
- Manila has been criticized recently for violating human rights in its war on drugs. How do you plan to respond the excessive politicization of the human rights issue in the UNHRC?
The Philippines looks up with admiration to that very same toughness that the Russian authorities have shown with respect to the fight with illegal drugs. Likewise, President Duterte has manifested this dedication and toughness in ensuring that - drugs has been a menace to our society, has broken apart the communities and our families and has even rendered insecure the future of our youth. We need to foster and encourage that kind of toughness which some societies, some countries, even the United Nations have frowned upon using standards that are not applicable to our own local or domestic situation.
What is even worse, some countries are imposing their standards that they themselves have not been effectively following.
The fight against illegal drugs in these countries has not been successful precisely because of these double standards. This issue of human rights has really been politicized more than a desire to help us in correctly fighting illegal drugs. We feel very strongly that the issue raised against us is just a cover for a hidden agenda for using it as a measure to force us into agreeing to certain activities or measures or adopting certain policies that could be in pursuit of their interest rather than a desire for us to stop or to say that we are really engaging in violation of human rights. This is something that we are very, very sensitive, that we strongly oppose.
Last week we directed UN permanent representative, Lourdes Yparraguirre, to come up with a note verbale protesting in the strongest manner the statement of the UN Secretary-General's envoy to the tribunal on the Khmer Rouge David Scheffer, who compared the Philippines’ war on drugs to Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.
We will not take this sitting down. If there are agencies, the human rights commissions that we feel are abusing their authority and are using their powers and prerogatives given to them more for political purposes, more for a hidden agenda than a sincere desire of trying to correct violations of human rights, especially against the Philippines, when we deny strongly such violations.
- Are there any other upcoming visits, or contacts between our countries scheduled?
I had personally invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to come to the Philippines next year, especially as we are chairing ASEAN for 2017 and he has very graciously accepted this as well. This will be a very important visit for us as well because we really feel that Russia being a strategic partner for ASEAN needs to be actively involved and supportive of ASEAN’s core desire of centrality and solidarity.
There is so much that we need from Russia in so far as this kind of support is concerned. We have also asked President Putin to be there during the summit, particularly in November next year. These are the significant plans that we have, that will not only foster the closer relationship between the Philippines and Russia, but more importantly between Russia and ASEAN as a whole.
- What’s your opinion of the role ASEAN is currently playing in the world?
We would really like to carry this regional cooperation also in the field of economic and trade, and infrastructure development. We also are very much concerned and ensuring the maritime security in the region, particularly in the South China Sea.
We would like to ensure that we are able also to interdict piracy, terrorism, even the fight against illegal drugs. Particularly in the South China Sea where the ASEAN members and our strategic partners are situated, this is a very strategic location for everybody, not only for us but for the rest of the world where you see that 65 per cent of the world trade is coursed through the South China Sea.
It is very, very important for us to make sure that indeed the maritime security is promoted and participated by as many countries as possible, as an initiative coming from ASEAN and also the freedom of navigation is protected so that everybody can freely use the international waters in the promotion of international trade.
This is something that we are pursuing very importantly. Countries like China, Russia, even the United States, our strategic partners; we would like them to be one with us in promoting and achieving these objectives.
We have very special multilateral relationship with Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia in the fight against terrorism and kidnappings for ransom. The other ASEAN nations are very much concerned about it as well, so we would like to develop this area particularly in promoting and advancing the quality of life of our respective peoples in that area through economic programs, vigorous trade relationships and make sure that by doing so even our disputes and disagreements can be easily facilitated and resolved.
- Recently, President Duterte castigated the outgoing US administration, evoking a response from Washington. How does your country plan to build relations with the new US administration?
Our desire to foster better relations with the United States and strengthening our special relations with the United States continues. However, it should not be seen in terms of equating it with personalities involved, because the desire to promote better relationship transcends personalities. It might have been that our president had difficulties in dealing with the personality of President Obama and his administration. People are speculating that the relationship between the Philippines and United States will be better under the Trump administration.
I would like to look at this more profoundly, not on the personalities involved, but on the core issues that we are trying to raise with each other, such as for instance the degree of dependence – militarily, economically, that has prevented our growth.
The natural tendency for a big country, superpower like the United States to look down on smaller countries… we would like to assert our right of respect as a country, and at the same time that we be treated as a sovereign equal regardless of the size of the United States.
We are sovereign equals before the international committee and this is what we are pushing forward.
We would like our relationship to be not seen as a 'little brown brother' forever, this is part of the colonial past that we are trying to liberate ourselves from.
We would like to be able to stand on our feet; we would like to be able to make sure that our special agreements, even our mutual defense agreement, and our military alliance with the United States will enable us to stand secure even alone in addressing external and internal threats to our security.
In the past these agreements which had been established precisely for making us less reliant and independent. All these matters have achieved a counterproductive objective and purpose. This is what we mean when we say we are separating from this kind of dependency from the United States. In the area of trade, economic relations we feel that every country for that matter, not only the United States is also interdependent with the Philippines. We are interdependent with each other.
By Evgeny Kolomeets