There was an abundant display of high-caliber statesmanship and upbeat engagement during a recent appearance of Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in a forum hosted by the regional think tank Stratbase ADR Institute together with the Australian Embassy.
The audience, which included key representatives from government, the diplomatic community, the academe, the business sector, and civil society, sat enthralled by the visiting diplomat’s articulate handling of complex and potentially thorny issues, including the Association of South East Asian Nations, Philippine-Australia Relations, terrorism, mining, and the ongoing territorial spat with China.
Speaking on the topic of “Change and Uncertainty in the Indo-Pacific—Strategic Challenges and Opportunities for Australia and the Philippines,” Bishop was unfailingly clear and convincing, delivering her points from a position of strength but also openness to engagement. Her messages always sought to find a balance among contending sides, hitting you with respectful authority and credibility.
To those in attendance, it was clear that here was a seasoned diplomat attuned and alert to the vagaries and complexities of a changing world. She was in top form, an irrefutable expert, and one who engages contending views with a proactive outlook.
Elsewhere during her visit, Bishop displayed the same judicious level-headedness in addressing relevant issues. On the issue of the West Philippine Sea, she criticized the scale of reclamation and simultaneous militarization in the region.
But constructively, she called on the Asean to heed the landmark arbitration ruling last year, which she said “clarified the situation” in the disputed waters and thus set a clear “drive for an enforceable code of conduct.”
“The arbitration,” she said, “has set out some very clear recommendations and findings that can form a basis of a code of conduct.” Ten voices, she stressed, are “more compelling” than one.
This clarity may have encouraged President Rodrigo Duterte, who expressed his commitment in ensuring freedom of navigation in the high seas and overflight, alongside other bilateral issues such as the fight against terrorism. This represents a much sharper position for the Duterte administration compared to what some had perceived as a lackadaisical approach to China’s intrusions.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario said the Philippines, as chairman of the Asean, could well set the agenda in favor of its claims but warned that any framework “will be futile if it does not include the arbitral tribunal outcome.”
For his part, acting Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said negotiators will be focusing on “cooperative mechanisms” in drafting the framework, geared to provide greater stability and avoid the escalation of tensions.
Bishop also cited the economic growth of both Australia and the Philippines as proof of “opportunities that arise when the region is peaceful and stable.”
Elsewhere, Bishop also provided a lucid voice in the ongoing row about mining after she assured President Duterte that Australia, which hosts one of the top mining economies in the world, is willing to cooperate in building capacities for responsible mining and use of energy resources.
The President, who recently expressed support for Department of Environment and Natural Resources Secretary Gina Lopez, reportedly expressed interest in learning responsible mining from Australia.
The positive and productive tone represents a departure from the shrill and acrimonious tenor that had characterized the debate over the mining industry hereabouts, exemplified by what industry stakeholders described as arbitrary closure and suspension of some of legitimate large scale mines.
If Bishop’s example can teach us anything, it is that a constructive and authoritative government official, by the sheer influence he or she wields, can be a huge asset to a country. The bar set for state positions should thus be high, and only top-caliber talent with impeccable credentials should be appointed to high echelons of power.
While perhaps it is unfair to compare Bishop and Lopez, the two personalities do offer a stark contrast in competence and the way a government official negotiates the many sides of complex issues.
How I wish that members of the Commission on Appointments were there to experience a rare display of high statesmanship.