(Written by Li Min / Translated by Xie Zongming)
Since 2018, the Philippines has assumed the position of being the country coordinator for ASEAN and China. Over the past 3 years, there were both breakthroughs in China-ASEAN cooperation and hardships like the Covid-19 pandemic. Under the pandemic, what has the Philippines contributed to promoting China-ASEAN relations? What are the Ambassador’s comments on the development of the relations? As this year is the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN relations, our journalists recently had an interview with H.E. Mr. José Santiago Santa Romana, Philippine Ambassador to China, and asked the mentioned questions.
China-ASEAN cooperation remains strong as ever
Since the Philippines became the country coordinator between ASEAN and China, contributions have been made by the collective effort of China and the Philippines to promote China-ASEAN relations. China and ASEAN held several high-level meetings despite the pandemic to keep uninterrupted cooperation and development.
According to the Ambassador, China and ASEAN held a foreign ministers meeting in Vientiane, Laos on competing against the Covid-19 pandemic in February 2020. During the meeting, a joint statement was issued for sharing anti-Covid 19 practices, medical supplies and other anti-Covid 19 equipment, as well as the initial discussion about the development of vaccines.
In June 2021, China and ASEAN ministers gathered in Chongqing, China, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of China-ASEAN relations. The meeting was jointly moderated by Wang Yi, Chinese State Councilor and Minister of Foreign Affairs of China, and Teodoro Locsin, Minister of Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines. “This is a significant meeting because it was the first face-to-face meeting this year at the foreign ministerial level. At that time when the different countries are still competing against the pandemic, ministers took a special trip to Chongqing and were able to meet together with the Chinese Foreign Minister. It basically shows that, despite the pandemic, China-ASEAN cooperation remains strong as ever.” said the Ambassador. “The decision was made on the meeting that the second reading of the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea should be resumed soon.”
The signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on November 15th, 2020 is a milestone in China-ASEAN economic cooperation. In the Ambassador’s opinion, the RCEP will pave way for regional economic development, bringing resilient and sustainable economic recovery in the post-pandemic world. “Because of the pandemic, ASEAN countries, including the Philippines, have suffered economic setbacks. The question now is how to recover from the pandemic in terms of regaining economic growth and providing jobs for the people.” said the Ambassador. According to him, RCEP will provide a rules-based trading regime that could lower or even eliminate trade barriers among the member countries and will provide a platform for the resolution of issues that may arise in the course of trade and promoting investments among different countries. The Philippines looks forward to the trade and investments to be brought by RCEP to the Philippines and other member countries.
“In terms of FDI, there are two points that the Philippines values the most. The first is if the investment could open access to a bigger market for products that we produce in the Philippines, for example, the agricultural exports like fruit and other food products. The second is if the investment could help Philippine industries integrate into the regional and global supply chain since the Philippines also exports electronic components and other industrial components.” said the Ambassador, “For the Philippines, the time after RCEP is a particularly important period. The country could be more competitive in trade and attracting investment.”
“RCEP is viewed as a positive development. We think the prospects for promoting trade and investment are quite right.” said the Ambassador, “We are now about to end our position of the country coordinator. I think it has been a very productive and meaningful period of time.”
A witness of China’s development and China-Philippines cooperation
Before the Ambassador came to this position, H.E. Romana was a foreign student and scholar in China, who had later stayed in China as a journalist. For decades, the Ambassador has witnessed the remarkable development of China and dedicated himself to the development of China-Philippines relations and further cooperation.
“I first came to China in the early 70s. At that point, the China I witnessed was still very poor and backward. I remember when I landed in Beijing, the airport was quite a small one. I drove around Beijing from the airport and it was nighttime. There were no neon lights, not even a bright light in Beijing at that point. People all dressed the same.” the Ambassador recalled the scene, “It was a remarkable period to be a witness to China’s transformation from a poor developing country to now the second-largest economy in the world. The improvement in the living standards of the people, the change in the way people dress and the way people think. All of these have been an amazing scene to observe and witness.”
“When I came back as ambassador in 2017, it was the period of President Xi Jinping, and I was able to present my credentials to him. Though I was away for 7 years, China had changed even further. The use of digital payment, cell phones, the internet, development from 4G to 5G, tall buildings increased in number...It is an entirely different city from the one I saw 50 years ago.” said the Ambassador. Since his career as ambassador began, Mr. Romana has been promoting China-Philippines cooperation.
The efforts of the Embassy are continuous and consistent despite the pandemic. “Although the pandemic has affected the exchange of visit, for example, President Duterte has not been able to come to Chins since his last visit in 2019. However, there was a telephone conversation between President Duterte and President Xi on June 29th last year when President Duterte requested China’s help with vaccines. China promised to sent help and did keep their words. In 2021, 14 million doses have arrived and 10 million more are on the way by the end of this year.”
Ambassador Romana pointed that the pandemic has not affected the high-level communication between the two sides, for example, the face-to-face meetings between the two ministers. “On the political side, we have maintained close strategic communication between the two sides," said the Ambassador, “on the economic side, because of the pandemic, the Philippine business delegation and even the Philippine Trade Secretary were unable to come to China to participate in several trade fairs, so it was the Embassy delegation who took their place instead.”
From the China International Fair for Investment and Trade in Xiamen, the China-ASEAN Expo (CAEXPO) in Nanning, to the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, the delegation led by Ambassador Romana was active among various trade fairs and expos through online and offline meetings, ensuring the communication between the Philippines and Chinese investors and entrepreneur.
According to the Ambassador, promoting China-Philippines cooperation in vaccines distribution is of high priority. There are difficulties in sectors involving the exchange of people, such as tourism. “We managed to overcome the hurdles and we managed to maintain the high-level and close communication, but there are a lot to be done. We tried to solve the problem one by one... We hope, as we overcome the pandemic, we can go into the new normal and can further promote cooperation between the two countries.” said the Ambassador.
CAEXPO shows the opportunities in the Philippines to more
Because the Philippine delegation led by Ambassador Romana participated in various expos and trade fairs in China, the Ambassador himself was able to see how different platforms promote China-ASEAN economic cooperation.
“It was my first time to attend the CAEXPO in 2020. It was an opportunity to see how the expo promoted closer trade and economic relations between China and ASEAN.” said Ambassador Romana, “There are advantages of countries right next to China. For the Philipines, we are able to cross the South China Sea and get to a port in Guangxi. To my experience in Nanning, I could see that it represented the potential of further development, not only in promoting Philippine products in Southwestern China but also in the interior of China and even central Asia and Europe, thanks to the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor. So in this sense, it represents a new dimension with potential that can be further developed in the near future.”
The 18th China-ASEAN Expo themed “Sharing New Land and Sea Corridors and New Opportunities, Building China-ASEAN Community with a Shared Future” is to be held in Nanning, September 10th to 13th, 2021. Talking of his expectation of the expo this year, he said: “We hope that it could further promote Philippine trade, investment and products, and reach out to Chinese traders and investors in Southwestern China, showing them the possibilities of the Philippines. We hope it will be another successful and productive expo and we wish it a great success.”