The Philippines may be a tropical paradise of sunny skies, coconut trees, and white sandy beaches, but it’s a diplomatic post that’s far from relaxed, laid-back, or idyllic—especially for the American ambassador.
It has been more than a year since Philip S. Goldberg was assigned to lead the 1,400 outstanding men and women who work in the United States Embassy in Manila. So far, he has been at the center of an eventful tour of duty, replete with issues, some age-old, some new.
Goldberg assumed his post at a most interesting time, when it is almost certain that wherever he goes, he would be asked about his country’s position on the brewing West Philippine Sea dispute between the Philippines and China. Be they in the upper echelons of business and politics, or ordinary people on the street, most Filipinos have taken a special interest in this territorial quarrel. After all, to be informed and concerned is the least a citizen of this country can do to manifest the pledge of allegiance he or she has been taught to recite since childhood.
Goldberg assures it is as important an issue to the US as it is to the Philippines, because the US strongly advocates freedom of navigation in water, especially in waters that carry 40 percent of the world’s trade. But as provocative and contentious as it is, this diplomatic deadlock is not something that keeps him awake at night, the ambassador admits. He assures that that US’ stand is similar to that of the Philippines.
“We want the same things,” Goldberg says. “Our commitment to the Philippines is very strong, and is based in the oldest alliance in this region. We have a mutual defense treaty, and we have a very strong commitment to what the President and the Secretary of Defense have described as an iron-clad treaty. The issues in the South China Sea are something that we, just like the Philippines, hope will be solved through international law or a rules-based solutions and decisions.’’
To say that the Obama administration has been strategically ambivalent on this issue, short of fence-sitting, is also not fair, Goldberg refutes. “We’re not fence-sitting. We have strongly advocated for a more rules-based way of solving problems in the South China Sea. We have expressed our strong opposition to the reclamation activities of China. In fact, Secretary of State John Kerry was in Kuala Lumpur at the Asean Meeting recently, and he made those representations directly to China. We must admit that that has created some tension in our relationship with China. But the main reason is our mutual defense agreement with the Philippines. So, anyone who says that we don’t have the commitment should look at the record,’’ explains the ambassador.
The United States and the Philippines have a very long and strong security relationship through the Mutual Defense Treaty entered into in 1951, the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and most likely soon, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). Annually, the US allocates millions of dollars in defense and development assistance to the Philippines.
“All of those things have our militaries working together,” Goldberg adds. “It starts with our alliance with the Philippines, but it also has to do with our belief in freedom of navigation in water, about $5 trillion in goods that go through those waters. So commerce is very important. The United States, though our relationships with different Asian countries, is very present in the Pacific. It always has been, but now even more so, as we’ve recognized that Asia in the 21st century is the place for growing economics and demographics, so we have a strong commitment to the region.’’
The Philippines is also home to one of the largest consular operations in the world, Goldberg says. “Our visa process in the Philippines is the same as around the world, but we process about 60,000 immigrant visas and around 150,000 non-immigrant visas. That’s a huge volume. To add to that, we also have consular services for the hundreds of thousands of Americans living in the Philippines—things like taking care of their passports or helping their children get passports,’’ he explains.
The visa application process is also being demystified, thanks to changes instituted to make going through the procedure more comfortable, if not more humane. Gone are the people camping out and forming long queues along Roxas Boulevard as early as midnight to be assured of an interview slot the following morning.
“There’s a brand-new state-of-the-art building for processing visas to help bring comfort as people go through the process of getting a visa. Most people applying for a visa usually get it. It’s not an onerous process. We try to make it as easy and as comfortable as possible, a lot easier than it was before. However, it’s still a process,’’ Goldberg adds.
Starting last year, the US Embassy in Manila has also begun processing fiancée visas for same sex marriages which have been legalized since June 2015, Goldberg shares…
H.E. Philip Goldberg shares more about the long-standing friendship between the US and the Philippines inside Asian Dragon Magazine September-October issue. Grab a copy from all leading bookstores nationwide or purchase the issue from the Asian Dragon Magazine App, free for all Android and Apple devices.
[Photograph: PJ Enriquez]