By Joyce Ann L. Rocamora

PURSUING PH’S INTERESTS. Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo delivers his remarks during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the refurbished facilities of the Office of Consular Affairs at Aseana Business Park in Parañaque City on Oct. 12, 2022. In 2023, the Department of Foreign Affairs worked hard to protect the rights of Filipinos both abroad and within the country’s very own waters while continuing to increase interaction with countries to boost cooperation in areas of mutual interest. (PNA photo by Avito Dalan)

MANILA – The year 2023 was a busy year for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) as it strived to protect the rights of Filipinos both abroad and within the country’s very own waters while continuing to increase interaction with countries to boost cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

In the last 12 months, the DFA convened 45 political consultations and 65 bilateral meetings with traditional and non-traditional partners.

These include engagements with the United States, China, Japan, Israel, India, Australia, and other partners, such as Canada, Malaysia, Portugal and South Korea.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo said these partnerships have resulted in cooperation and collaboration in multiple sectors and cross-cutting issues.

On top of this, the DFA had sought to advance the country’s interests amid shifting regional and global landscapes before international organizations such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the United Nations.

West Philippine Sea

While defending the agency’s budget at the Senate, the top diplomat said the DFA had fully committed to defending the Philippines’ sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea while raising awareness of the 2016 Arbitral Award amongst partners.

Tensions in the area were heightened after China in August 2023 fired a water cannon on a Philippine resupply vessel, which was followed by similar incidents and near collisions in the succeeding months.

The most recent ones were the water cannon attack of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel against two Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) ships that were delivering supplies to Filipino fishermen near Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) on Dec. 9; and the harassment against Philippine boats and their escorts that were on resupply mission to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal on Dec. 10.

A BFAR official who asked not to be named was quoted by CNN Philippines that the Dec. 9 incident was the “most aggressive” it experienced yet while doing the resupply mission. The Dec. 10 water cannoning on the other hand damaged two of the four Filipino ships.

In both cases, the Philippine government lodged a “strong protest” to the Chinese government and summoned its envoy to verbally deliver Manila’s position over their dangerous maneuvers within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

Meanwhile, the DFA repeatedly assured that it would pursue constant dialogue and diplomatic approaches to resolve any issue that may arise, with national interest as the paramount.

On Dec. 20, Manalo and his Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a telephone conversation and “noted the importance of dialogue” in addressing issues surrounding the area.

A week later, the Filipino top diplomat reaffirmed this during a separate phone call with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and highlighted Manila’s “abiding interest to protect its sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction, while maintaining peace and security and upholding the rules-based international order”.

Manalo emphasized the importance of dialogue and maintaining open lines of communication with other parties in pursuit of these objectives.

Serving Filipinos

The past year also witnessed the outbreak of the deadly wars in Sudan and Gaza, prompting the agency to launch a series of back-breaking evacuation operations and diplomatic representations to get Filipinos in the conflict areas to safety.

On April 15, armed clashes erupted between the Sudanese Armed Forces and Rapid Support Forces and sent foreign governments scrambling to extract their nationals from Sudan during a 72-hour ceasefire.

In a rush to get to Filipinos waiting at the Sudan-Egypt border at that time, non-resident Philippine Ambassador to Sudan Ezzedin Tago and his vice consul Bojer Capati even figured in a car accident, with their vehicle rolling twice.

They were unharmed but Capati had to get clearance before he was released from the hospital.

In the latter part of the year, the DFA’s grueling work to ensure the safety of thousands of Filipinos in Israel, Gaza, West Bank, and Lebanon began following the cross-border attack of Hamas on a farm settlement in Israel on Oct. 7, which killed more than 1,000, including four Filipino caregivers.

The attack resulted in Israel mounting a retaliatory strike, including a ground assault in Gaza. With this, the DFA held non-stop talks with relevant governments to allow Filipinos to exit the besieged enclave until the border crossing with Egypt was finally opened in November.

The rising hostilities and tensions in the West Bank and Lebanon brought about by the Israel-Hamas also placed the agency on alert, advising Filipinos in the area to avail of its voluntary repatriation program.

For the entire year, the DFA utilized its assistance-to-nationals (ATN) fund well and granted a total of 7,346 welfare assistance to overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in need, including those affected by the deadly earthquake that struck Turkiye and Syria in February.

In total, it repatriated 5,043 OFWs, including those from Sudan, Israel and Gaza.

“The DFA’s ATN services have been supported by both funds, such as when our men and women go out in crisis situations such as in Sudan, Türkiye, and Sabah to assist our fellowmen, and the rescue of trafficking victims in Southeast Asia, amongst other emergencies,” Manalo said.

“And as we transition and complete the turnover of our ATN work to the Department of Migrant Workers, the DFA shall continue to serve all other overseas Filipinos who are not classified as OFWs, as well as all overseas Filipinos in countries without a Migrant Workers Office,” he added.

For 2024, Manalo said the agency was prepared to take on future challenges aligned with President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr.’s eight-point socio-economic agenda.

He said the DFA would focus on its strategic directions, including the opening of four new foreign service posts, raising public awareness on the 2016 Arbitral Award, and intensifying engagements with traditional allies as well as building relations with non-traditional partners.

The agency, he said, would also continue campaigning for a seat in the UN Security Council for 2027-2028 and open additional consular offices to reach more Filipinos, among others. (PNA)