The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is set to have three secretaries with truncated tenures attributed largely to the practice of naming political appointees instead of choosing those coming from the rank and file.
This unusual trend started in the waning days of former President Benigno S. Aquino III’s administration, when the then president appointed former Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene D. Almendras to replace outgoing Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario, who resigned for health reasons.
When the administration of President Duterte started, he appointed a province-mate and classmate in Perfecto R. Yasay Jr. as foreign affairs secretary. Yasay had earlier told Duterte that he would stay only for one year because he has a teaching job in Hawaii.
Yasay was a long-tenured Securities and Exchange Commission chairman. He was appointed by then President Fidel V. Ramos, who is now an adviser of Duterte. He was a key witness in the Estrada impeachment trial. He ran and lost in the vice-presidential race in 2010.
Last week, during a televised interview, Duterte confirmed that Yasay would, indeed, be leaving his post, which would be given to Sen. Alan Peter S. Cayetano, Duterte’s running mate in the last election.
Cayetano is prohibited by law from taking a government post for one year from election day.
Almendras served as the Cabinet secretary under the Office of the President for more than three years and was tasked to effectively integrate and implement the programs of the Aquino administration.
Before that, he was Department of Energy secretary and has held various positions in the private sector.
Republic Act 7157, or the Philippine Foreign Service Act, allots 51 percent of diplomatic positions to career officers and 49 percent to political envoys.
Many career diplomats lamented that the tradition of past presidents to give diplomatic posts to friends, relatives and supporters as political reward has undermined their cherished careers.
Yasay has guaranteed that, should the new government decide to put political envoys in certain posts, it will make sure that qualified noncareer individuals will be appointed as envoys. He said there are certain posts that require political appointments for diplomatic positions.
Almendras has a kilometric resume, but none of them involves being in the foreign service.
At the start of Almendras stint at the DFA, the shortest stint at that, at only 108 days and a few hours, he sought the help of the department’s officials and diplomats to familiarize him with his work.
According to several accounts, Almendras jokingly warned them of his penchant for breaking protocols with his more laid-back and informal style of leadership. He then explained that he is not accustomed to the very stiff protocols in the DFA.
Former Ambassador and Philippine Air Force Cmdr. Ramon Farolan has said before political appointees are deadweights in the foreign service and that not all career diplomats are the best representatives of the country.
He argued that passing the foreign service examination is not a guarantee that career diplomats will be able to promote the country’s interests and that there are political appointees with special skills that make them very valuable to the country.
A former Philippine envoy, who requested not to be named because the diplomat does not want to be seen meddling in the Duterte administration, said that, since Cayetano seems a sure bet to be the next DFA secretary, the latter, who is also chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, should be preparing himself by now.
“The next Asean summit would be here during the latter part of the year, and Cayetano has five months left taking the helm from Yasay to show his mettle as the new foreign affairs secretary,” our source said.
The diplomat agreed that the line of succession is seldom followed in the Philippines, but the choice of a good DFA secretary would sufficiently erase any misgivings about the appointees’ capabilities.
This year will be the third time the country will be hosting the regional meet, after it was held in Manila in 1987 under former President Corazon Aquino and in Cebu in 2007 under former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. The bloc’s chairmanship rotates annually, in alphabetical order of the names of 10 member-states.
Duterte announced the Asean 2017 theme will be “Partnering for change, engaging the world”.
Former Ambassador and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Lauro Baja Jr. said the chairmanship is always a good opportunity for the host country not just to tackle the usual regional political, security and economic issues but also to prioritize its own interests.
Baja is expecting Duterte to highlight the antidrugs campaign of the country against illegal drugs and terrorism. He also hopes that issues surrounding the West Philippine Sea will not be the central issue.
On the other hand, del Rosario, who is also a political appointee, was, nevertheless, remembered for his untiring campaign to look after the overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). Despite his age, he was often found in the Middle East in the thick of conflict, bringing migrant workers out of the war zone into the safety of bordering countries.
In his defense, del Rosario was able to successfully lobby to increase the funding for lawyers, acting as legal defense for those OFWs who got into legal trouble in the workplace.
But del Rosario is most remembered as the hand behind the filing of arbitration case against China before the International Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague.
This was after China refused to honor a commitment to withdraw simultaneously from the Scarborough Shoal in 2012.
After three years of litigation, the PCA ruled in the country’s favor, declaring as illegal China’s nine-dash line, which practically encompasses the whole of the South China Sea.
But as soon as Yasay took over, he practically rebuked his predecessor by not fully supporting it.
Some interpreted his seemingly noncelebratory mood as a signal of the Duterte administration’s friendliness toward China. It also fueled speculation that Duterte would not use the favorable ruling to maximum advantage.
Eventually, his stance was proven correct after Duterte himself said he would not go to war with China over the Spratlys, except when the Chinese are siphoning off the minerals underneath without the country’s knowledge.
This month, following China’s confirmation that it has deployed military equipment on the Spratly Islands, Yasay said that the Philippines currently has no means stop China. However, he said the country will continue to pursue peaceful means to resolve the issues.
“He may be academically bright but he has no background in the foreign service,” our source said, adding, “Yasay is a fish out of the water in the DFA.”
The source added: “Maybe he has a complete briefing papers provided by DFA professionals, but without a proper background, it would be like comparing someone who is an expert in riding bicycles, but who would like to immediately drive a Mercedes Benz.”
Our source said same problem is now prevailing in the United States, where President-elect Donald J. Trump has chosen Rex Tillerson, the president and chief executive of Exxon Mobile, as his nominee for secretary of state.
The nominee has divided Republicans and dismayed Democrats. Senators from both parties have raised concerns about Tillerson’s lack of government experience and close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“At least, Tillerson knows something about Putin, because he has a business in Russia,” our source said.