President Donald J. Trump participates in a Credentialing Ceremony for Newly Appointed Ambassadors to Washington, D.C. Wednesday, November 29, 2017, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Just before flying to Washington DC to take up his post as the newly minted ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Jose Manuel G. “Babe” Romualdez asked President Rodrigo Roa Duterte for any specific instructions or mandate in dealing with the world’s only superpower and the Philippines’ long-time ally, America. 

“Is there anything you want me to do?”  Babe asked Duterte, actually the chief architect of the Philippines’ foreign policy.

“Just do your job,” was the President’s crisp but incisive reply.

Explained the warm and genial Babe in a tv interview with Tony Lopez:

“That clearly tells me that it’s important for us to communicate our concerns with the United States. At the same time, keep that relationship on an even keel.  So we have to promote good relations with the US. So doing my job and looking at my job description, we will be there to represent the President and be able to communicate to every single American and to people in Washington DC,  to the US Congress, to the US President, and to the Defense establishment what our policy is: ‘We would like you to join us especially when it comes with military relationship’. And there are things here that we have to disagree on or we will agree to disagree.   That’s basically what it is.”

Babe comes to his Washington DC job with nearly half a century of skill and experience as a newsman, a broadcast and public relations executive, as a civic leader, and as a no-nonsense businessman managing and owning a publishing house and one of the most highly regarded public relations, advertising and marketing multinationals in the Philippines.

Romualdez is obviously well liked. 

Enthused Senate President Protempore Ralph Recto after Romualdez’s Commission on Appointments confirmation hearing which the nominee breezed thru easily on on Aug. 23, 2017:

“Our man in Washington DC is no babe in the woods in US affairs. Though principally based in Manila, he has enough contacts in the American capital that he can be considered a Beltway insider.  So wide is his network, I was told, that should (President) Trump drain the swamp, those flushed away and those who will remain are surely friends of his. So wired is he with the beating heart of the US government, that a friend has joked that if the nominee decides to swim across the Potomac unannounced, someone in Foggy Bottom will be waiting with a set of dry clothes for him.”

“But more than connections,” Recto explained, “(Babe) has many other competencies, not to mention the communication skills, which make him a fine diplomat. He is articulate in both the spoken and written word. He was a TV reporter, and remains a working journalist, churning multiple columns in a week, in addition to running a publishing house.”

Ralph, grandson of the late nationalist Filipino senator and statesman Claro M. Recto, added: “Though he (Babe) has not held public office, he dabbles in policy, which qualifies him as a public intellectual whose views shape major decisions taken by those in power. He is an influencer, but of the cerebral kind, whose contributions to civic debates are not confined to 140-character blasts, or troll-friendly memes, but in well thought-out think pieces.”

Chimed in Senator Panfilo Lacson, chair of the CA Committee on Foreign Affairs which vetted Romualdez:

“You (addressing the Senate President, Aquilino Pimentel III, CA chair) and I will agree that his sartorial elegance and refined public relations make for effective diplomatic bilateral relations with the United States.

“This serves the country in good stead as observed during the onslaught of typhoon Yolanda in November 2013. His close ties with the US Embassy expedited the response of USS George Washington, which made possible rescue missions and emergency airlifts to Leyte.”

“Our nominee’s policy of mutually beneficial cooperation anchored on mutual respect and equality as sovereign nations are crucial to maintaining the longstanding relations between the Philippines and the United States, with no less than the current US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim welcoming his appointment with warm congratulations will guarantee strong diplomatic engagement with the US,” said Senator Lacson.

The CA briefing paper, Lacson noted,  “says he is an Americanophile, which is good, because it means that he is abreast with US developments, and attuned to policy debates that would have an impact on our country.”

On Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, the veteran newsman, publisher,  and public relations executive was welcomed by top Washington DC diplomats and policy wonks as the newly minted Philippine ambassador to the United States.

Ambassador Romualdez described the welcome reception and how he would go about his new job, in his Dec. 10, 2017 Philippine Star column:

“It marked my formal introduction to the officials of the State Department, members of the Washington diplomatic corps and policy analysts, allowed me to renew old friendships and establish new ones,” Romualdez wrote.

“It was good to meet Ambassador Nathan Alexander Sales who is the State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scott Busby, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Joseph Felter, as well as Representatives Bobby Scott of Virginia and Madeleine Bordallo of Guam.”

Babe clearly relishes his diplomatic task as President Duterte’s alter ego in the capital of the world’s most powerful country.

“My assumption as Philippine Ambassador to Washington is certainly auspicious and timely, with President Donald Trump’s recent trip to Asia giving reassurance that the US is solid in its commitment to the region and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Likewise, the rapport between President Trump and President Duterte further reaffirmed and strengthened the foundation for the decades-long alliance and friendship between the Philippines and the United States,” he relates, adding:

Deeper and more dynamic

“Together with our team at the Embassy, we expect to foster a deeper and more dynamic partnership between the two nations in terms of economic, security and people-to-people relationships.”

“The latter of course is a key area that we will also focus on considering the estimated four million Filipino-Americans who make up a large and important segment in the US. Both Presidents Duterte and Trump recognize the strong personal relationships and the numerous institutions that enhance the connection between Filipinos and Americans.”

Focus on terrorism and illegal drugs

“We obviously have very strong common interests and shared concerns, like terrorism and illegal drugs, which is the main focus of our attention,” stresses Romualdez.

“The clear messaging for us to US officials especially at the US Congress is to emphasize the dangerous link between terrorism and the illegal drugs trade. The attack in Marawi City by ISIS-affiliated terrorist groups against our Armed Forces, and how these terrorists got their resources, was very clear and confirmed by US intelligence operatives,” he explains.

Still at Washington DC, on Dec. 5, 2017,  the new envoy met with the Executive Committee of the US-Philippines Society, a non-profit group established in 2012, for the purpose of elevating the profile of the Philippines in the United States.

USPS founding director Tom Hubbard is an old friend of Babe’s, he having had numerous activities with him during the latter’s tour of duty as US Ambassador to the Philippines. Joining Tom were USPS president Ambassador John Maisto, executive director Hank Hendrickson, and former Deputy State Secretary and former ambassador to the Philippines John Negroponte (who co-chairs the organization with Manny Pangilinan of PLDT).

Philippine growth

In my view, notes Babe, “the US-Philippines Society is a good institution that could help the Philippines especially in the area of trade and people-to-people relationships as it seeks to highlight the many opportunities that the Philippines has to offer in terms of business and investments. The series of economic reforms undertaken by the Philippines has provided the momentum that has made the country one of the fastest growing economies in the world. For nine consecutive quarters, economic expansion exceeded 6%, and growth last quarter was at 6.9%.”

“The growth and resilience displayed by the Philippines make it a very promising investment destination especially with the continued efforts of the Duterte administration to open up the economy to more foreign participation,” stresses Romualdez.

Also, the ambassador points out, “the Philippines has a young and dynamic population – a demographic sweet spot as Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez describes it – along with an ambitious infrastructure program with vital projects worth $170 billion that will be rolled out in the next five years.”

Meanwhile, the informal Trade and Investment Framework Agreement or TIFA meeting between trade delegates from the Philippines and the US was also very encouraging, with preliminary discussions centering on the prospects for a bilateral Free Trade Agreement. Updates on key trade policy issues and concerns regarding market access were also reviewed.

Romualdez emphasizes that “President Duterte on many occasions has stated that the Philippines is America’s best friend in Asia.”

“This will be our guiding light,” says Babe, “as our team at the Embassy will work to ensure that the partnership between the United States and the Philippines remains to be a clear and decisive commitment to the principles that underpin the alliance. We look forward to bright prospects ahead, and I have every confidence that we will be successful in our mission with the support and partnership of leaders in the US government, the Fil-American community, our friends and all stakeholders.”

The US was the Philippines’ biggest trading partner in 2016 (out of 226 trading partners) and the second biggest market for Philippine exports (out of 213 export markets), accounting for 16% of total PHL exports.  The US is also the Philippines’ third largest investor. Over the past five years, US foreign investments in the Philippines have amounted to P165.93 billion.

In 2016, visitors from the US were the second biggest arrivals in the Philippines.  The 869,463 visitors constituted 14.57% of the total and an 11.6% jump from 2015’s 779,217. 

Addressing the US-ASEAN Business Council at St. Regis on Dec. 11, 2017, Romualdez expounded on his mission.  He said: “The friendship and partnership between our governments and our peoples continue to be an unfinished project. Our task is to build upon the strong foundations of the past in order to achieve a common future of mutual prosperity.”

“Ambassador Romualdez arrives at a significant moment for US-Philippine relations.  With Presidents Trump and Duterte meeting in Manila last month, the important relationship between the Philippines and the United States will build on the positive nature of their meeting and the Philippines’ ASEAN Chairmanship.  The recently completed TIFA discussions as well as the 7th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue have built on this momentum,” Alexander Feldman, President of the US-ASEAN Business Council, said after hosting the Dec. 11 welcome lunch.

“Babe has deep experience in world affairs and the media, knows the US, and enjoys the confidence of Philippine government and private sector leaders across the board,” said Ambassador Thomas C. Hubbard, US-Philippines Society founding director.

Ambassador Romualdez has hit the ground running at the Ground Zero of world diplomacy, military might, and economic power. But at bottom, Babe knows who his real constituents are – the four million Filipino-Americans in the US and the 105 million more Filipinos who are in the Philippines.