As the chief architect of our country’s foreign policy, the president plays a crucial role in representing the country on the global stage. Aside from being an embodiment of the country’s values and identity, he is also expected to engage with foreign leaders while viewing international affairs from a broad strategic perspective. One way to do this is through diplomatic trips. As international relations and diplomacy play an increasingly important role in a “borderless world”, Presidents, particularly from developing nations, undertake foreign trips to advance their country’s interests. But just like any political act, the venn diagram between necessity and convenience within the context of international presidential trips often becomes a circle.
Whether President Marcos Jr.’s trips are being used to achieve other purposes or not depends on a number of factors, including the nature of his duties, the frequency and duration of his trips, the benefits we have gained from governmental and business pledges, and the impact of his travel on effective domestic governance. By exposing and tackling these factors, we get to view presidential foreign trips from a greater perspective.
President’s Diplomatic Duties
In general, foreign trips can play an important role in advancing a country’s diplomatic, economic, and political interests, as well as promoting understanding and cooperation between different nations and cultures. Presidents go on foreign trips for a variety of reasons.
First, foreign trips are useful for diplomatic purposes. Visiting other countries can provide an opportunity for leaders to engage in face-to-face diplomacy with other world leaders and build relationships with key allies or potential partners.
Second, trips can promote trade and investment opportunities, as well as establish economic partnerships between private businesses.
Third, through foreign trips, Presidents can address political issues, such as negotiations over treaties or international agreements, or build support for specific policies or positions.
Fourth, visiting other countries allows leaders to learn about different cultures and ways of life, which can promote understanding and empathy.
Finally, foreign trips can also be used to draw attention to humanitarian issues and promote aid efforts in areas affected by conflict, natural disasters, or other crises.
All these reasons combined, it is only expected for Presidents to steer a clear vision of their priorities and visions for the country through foreign trips. This isn’t to say that foreign trips are the only avenue for administrations to appear functional. In fact, most post-EDSA presidents did not take any foreign trips until immediate domestic issues were settled. Former Presidents Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Arroyo did not have any foreign trip in their first 100 days in office. The first democratically-elected president to have a foreign trip in his first 100 days in office was former President Benigno Aquino III. Even at that, he only attended one—the 65th United Nations General Assembly in the United States. This was followed by President Rodrigo Duterte’s maiden trips to Laos, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Having seemingly no time to spare, President Marcos followed the trend of increasing and more frequent trips. He took off with the most number of diplomatic trips in the span of 100 days among all other post-EDSA presidents.
Is it a legitimate trip or just junket?
In his first eight months in office, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. had already undertaken nine (9) foreign trips. He started in early September with a two-day state visit in Indonesia where he met with some members of the local Filipino community, President Joko Widodo, and First Lady Iriana. From Jakarta, he went on another two-day state visit to Singapore where he and First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos toured the Singapore Botanic Gardens and joined a roundtable discussion with potential Singaporean investors. The first presidential trips are important since it signifies the priority of the current administration. In this case, the Marcos Presidency is signaling importance in having good diplomatic relations with ASEAN, our immediate neighbor.
On September 20, he went to the United States and addressed the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly. During the same working visit, he briefly met with US President Joe Biden, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, and other prominent world leaders.
After a week from the US visit, he flew to Singapore at the invitation of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to join him in watching the Formula One Grand Prix. According to the Palace Spokesman, the visit was not announced for “security reasons.” The public wasn’t happy with such a display of insensitivity, enjoying the grand prix, while the country was still facing the wrath of the pandemic and high inflation.
On November 9, Marcos Jr. went to Cambodia to attend the 40th and 41st ASEAN Summits. Next, he went to Thailand on November 16 to attend and address the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit. He also held bilateral meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, French President Emmanuel Macron, Saudi Arabia Prime Minister Mohammend bin Salman, and others. Before 2022 came to an end, Marcos Jr. attended the ASEAN-European Union Commemorative Summit in Belgium.
In 2023, Marcos Jr. started his foreign trip streak by visiting Beijing from January 3-6.
Another controversial trip was to Switzerland where he, along with some 70 delegates from government and business, participated in the World Economic Forum. Here, he presented his economic plans for the country and the “soft launch” of the Maharlika Investment Fund. To the public, his attendance was just a public relations effort to rehabilitate the Marcos name in foreign stages.
Lastly, at the time of this writing, Marcos Jr. visited Japan to meet with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and address Japanese executives at the Philippine Business Opportunities Forum.
Have we gained anything from these trips?
With these trips, President Marcos Jr. is confident that he was able to secure investment from other countries and take the first steps in attaining some strategic objectives. But all of these are just pledges, and if materialized, will be a huge help as the country recovers from the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic, among the other economic woes of the country.
According to the Philippine Information Agency, the presidential trips have thus far generated about PHP3.48 trillion worth of investment pledges. This is projected to provide 166 projects and tens of thousands of jobs for Filipinos. Here are the investment commitments from various memoranda of understanding with countries visited by the President:
The visit to Indonesia resulted in the signing of bilateral agreements and investment pledges of up to $8 billion. Meanwhile, the Singapore visit yielded about $6.5 billion worth of investment in transportation, energy, and technology. The six-day trip in the United States earned investment pledges amounting to $3.9 billion and approximately 112,000 potential jobs for Filipinos. During the APEC summit in Thailand, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammend bin Salman promised to set 2 billion riyals (roughly $532 million) to cover the uncompensated Filipino works abandoned by their Saudi contractors. After the 3-day working visit in Belgium, about $9.8 billion worth of investment were made. Moreover, the president reports more or less $23 billion investment pledges ($13.7 billion of which is directed for the development of the renewable energy sector of the country) and 14 bilateral agreements with China. Finally, in his most recent trip to Japan, Marcos met with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to “forge closer security ties with Tokyo.” In this 5-day visit, the leaders crafted a deal to allow their armed forces to work together during disaster relief. While Marcos treads the pursuit of a potential pact, this can be seen as initial steps in having a Visiting Forces Agreement with Japan.
Considering what we have “gained” so far, it is evident that President Marcos Jr.’s foreign trips have been focused on bagging investment pledges and raising international visibility. This makes sense in establishing relationships with foreign leaders, meeting with domestic constituents, and communicating policy priorities. What does not make sense, however, is how the president can turn his attention to travel while the administration’s domestic policy agenda remains non-existent eight months after the election.
Deep Dive on Pledges
There is no denying that investment pledges, which seem to be the president’s metric of a successful foreign trip, are desirable. Even former president Rodrigo Duterte took great pride in amassing billions of pledges during his trips. The operative term here, remember, is “pledges.” It is worthy to note that most investment pledges during the Duterte administration did not materialize.
Now, the interesting thing about pledges is that they are not legally binding. They are technically a matter of courtesy for any visiting state leader This means they may or may not ultimately translate to material support, as they do on paper. While there are consequences if pledges are not fulfilled, they still do not carry the same weight as treaties or formal agreements, and so they are easily breached. But who would remember if these pledges become broken promises. Not the Filipino electorate.
Countries give something or pledge ambitious numbers because they want something that we may or may not have. We know that is true because that applies even to us. However, the problem is not about being willing to lose something in the process in order to gain something bigger. The problem is that we may be too willing to receive too little and give up too much. This has exactly been the case in the past and this is something the current administration seems to discount in the trips it has undertaken so far. The result? We sink into a “pledge trap” where we are either held at neck-point by debt of gratitude or a position where we are compelled to make real geopolitical concessions in exchange of grand but illusory promises. There is nothing wrong with receiving pledges, but President Marcos Jr. must start doing so with consciousness.
After his official visit to Japan, the president promised to account for all the pledges since his maiden trip to indonesia. Department of Trade and Industry officials project roughly PHP 1 trillion worth of investment pledges for 2023. However, as of late February, these pledges remained mere promises.
As promises pile up following the president’s foreign trips, no real actions have been taken in tackling other pressing issues at the international and domestic level. Case in point, for the past 12 years, many sectors have been calling the sitting Chief Executive to appeal for an executive clemency for Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina who has been on death row for the past 12 years over drug-related charges. Before the Jakarta visit, there were no assurances whether Veloso’s case would be discussed with Indonesian President Joko Widodo. The administration merely declared that “the president is aware of the issue”, but beyond this, “we cannot say more”. There was even no mention of Veloso’s case in the President’s speech when he addressed the Filipino community in Indonesia. The visit could have been an avenue to reopen discussions on Veloso’s appeals, a Filipina whose life literally hangs in balance, but so far, we only hear about the heaping $8 billion pledge by Indonesian investors to the country.
When foreign trips are focused on photo opportunities and public relations, rather than substantive outcomes (which are, by nature, challenging to tackle) that make decisive ripples across the country, our leaders fail to adhere to their mandate. Without clear goals and objectives, these trips can be ultimately reduced to a missed opportunity to advance important political or economic priorities.
Impact of Foreign Trips on Domestic Governance
The President’s foreign trips, while lauded by some, drew flak among people who find them too frequent, too early, and even way too unnecessary. During the Phnom Penh trip for the ASEAN Summit, Marcos acknowledged that he has been “traveling too much.” He even shared how his mother, former First Lady Imelda Marcos, asked him when or if he even goes to the office.
Serious domestic issues necessitate a President who is not only physically present but is also politically prepared to make decisive steps. With the president out for a huge chunk of the beginning of his term, his ability to perform his duties will inevitably be affected, at the cost of the kind of administration he promised during his campaign. When the country experienced a record-high inflation rate in September 2022 (which continues to exacerbate at the time of writing), the President instead went to the United States for the UN General Assembly. Retired corporate executive and business consultant Oscar Lagman Jr. criticized the President’s move in putting his address first before addressing the plight of the Filipino people, when he could have attended the assembly at a later time in his presidency.
On the matter of the controversial “pleasure trip” to Singapore, much has been said about, one, the trip not being announced and, two, the trip being insensitive to the suffering of many Filipinos after the country was devastated by a severe typhoon a week before. But even if the trip was necessary, bringing along some members of Congress (who also happen to be his relatives or close allies) as the official delegation during his official state/working visits was just unconscionable. According to the constitution, the Executive branch, headed by the President, has the exclusive authority to handle our foreign affairs. In doing so, he must advance the interests and causes of the citizens while raising the discourse which defines Philippine foreign policy after the national elections. Ideally, other branches of the government should not meddle with the President’s foreign policy powers. The Congress should only step in ratifying the treaties or agreements made by such trips.
Amid all this, President Marcos Jr. has promised to reduce foreign trips according to the Philippine News Agency. However, he is still set to visit France before the end of June, Vietnam, Brunei, and other countries who have invited him which, by the President’s measure, was “a lot.”
The true nature of the foreign trips: Cleansing of the Marcos Name
It is common for politicians and public figures to use foreign trips as an opportunity to improve their image and reputation, especially if they have been embroiled in controversy or criticism in the past. The grand optics of being out there can do more than many of us can imagine. Motherhood statements on diplomacy and international coordination is one thing, but as a political act, foreign trips can be used in ways more than this. Foreign trips are a viable rebranding tool.
As the First Family, who are coincidentally the official delegates of presidential foreign trips, projects a positive image of themselves, they are able to rebrand the Marcos name in front of the international community. By positioning himself as an internationalist and undertaking a string of trips, including participating in high-profile events, meeting with foreign leaders, or engaging in charitable activities, the president, funded by people’s money, can take hold of his family’s history and wipe it clean. Rebranded. Cleansed.
Austria, Kate. (2023). Philippine News Agency. Foreign trips generate P3.48 trillion worth of investments.https://pia.gov.ph/news/2023/02/17/foreign-trips-generate-p348-trillion-worth-of-investments.
Bajo, Anna. (2022). Marcos’ unannounced Singapore trip ‘partly official, partly personal’ —Bersamin.https://www.gmanetwork.com/news/topstories/nation/847792/marcos-unannounced-singapore-trip-partly-official-partly-personal-bersamin/story/.
Lagman, Oscar. (2023). Business World. President Marcos is traveling too frequently.https://www.bworldonline.com/opinion/2023/01/16/498583/president-marcos-is-traveling-too-frequently/.
Parrocha Azer. (2023). Philippine News Agency. Marcos to reduce foreign trips; follow up on past deals signed.https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1193380.
Rappler. World Economic Forum in January 2023? It’s traveling too much, says Marcos.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FcTqFT7B0wU
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