Interview with a Filipino Diplomat

Many students at the ANU have a keen interest in diplomacy and international relations. Catering to this, the ANU International Relations Society’s Miguel Galsim sat down with the experienced and welcoming Jim San Agustin, First Secretary and Consul of the Philippine Embassy in Canberra, to discuss Australian-Philippine relations and the life of a diplomat.


M: Firstly, what led you to joining the Department of Foreign Affairs?

SA: Before I joined Foreign Affairs, I had already worked in government. I was with the University of the Philippines (UP) system and previous to that I was in a non-governmental organisation. I saw this ad encouraging Filipinos to join the Foreign Service, and in this ad it included the job description of a Foreign Service officer. So when I was an executive assistant at the time in UP, I was practically doing the same thing. I thought that my inclinations and interests lead towards employment in Foreign Service.

M: How long have you served in Australia and what are your general impressions of the country?

SA: I have served in Australia for a year and a half now. Because I’m handling the political section, I’ll start with that. Part of my job as a political officer is to look at the political system of Australia, to report on the political developments here. The parliamentary system of government of Australia fascinated me because it is very different from the presidential system in the Philippines, although both are working democracies. When I arrived here, it was during the time when Prime Minister Gillard was replaced by Prime Minister Rudd, and then a few months after, a new government came into power – the Coalition government – and those were exciting times.

M: Leon Maria Guerrero once wrote that people like yourself are “nationalists by occupation”. What are the key interests of the Filipino nation that you work to promote in Australia?

SA: The mission of the Department of Foreign Affairs is to pursue the national interests of the Philippines and the Filipino people. To delve in deeper, I’d like to discuss the three pillars of the Foreign Service. The first pillar is political security, under which we try to ensure that Australia’s and the Philippines’ political relations are strong and robust. Regarding the South China Sea issue, we try to make sure that Australia understands the position of the Philippines in terms of the issue involving the islands in the South China Sea. The position of Australia in regards to the South China Sea is that they want to encourage a code of conduct in the South China Sea and a rules-based solution, including UNCLOS, and they want to maintain freedom of navigation. The second pillar would be economic security. We try to encourage trade and investments in the Philippines, tourism promotion and the like. Part of that is cultural diplomacy. Usually when two countries have problems on the economic and political front, if there are healthy links on the cultural front we can highlight that in order to improve on the other fronts. There is a shared history we can highlight to show that the relationship between Australia and the Philippines go a long way back, and this can improve ties. And the last pillar is assistance to nationals, as we want to make sure that we are protecting the welfare of the Filipinos here, the overseas workers.

M: In regards to the South China Sea, how do the Philippines feel about the Australian position regarding the islands?

SA: Right now, Australia says they do not want to interfere with the domestic issues between the Philippines and China. We wish they would take a stronger position, but are quite happy with the position of Australia right now and we expect the government to continue maintaining that position.

M: In your opinion, what is the most critical area in Philippine-Australian relations; what is the most contentious or most important?

SA: I don’t really see a lot of contentious issues because, as we always say, Philippine-Australian relations are very mature. We cooperate with each other on a lot of issues, as in the multilateral sector, and we have a lot of cooperation in terms of defence and security. Although in terms of trade, we do want more agricultural products from the Philippines to have market access. But in terms of political relationship, we don’t really have major issues.

M: Did you ever feel that your personal attitudes were in conflict with the attitudes of the Philippine Government? If so, how did you manage this?

SA: I guess sometimes you can’t help but disagree with how a policy is implemented or how the government goes about with certain things. But of course, if you have complaints about government, you address it internally instead of in public; bring it up to your superiors. You just have to realise that your superiors have the interests of the Philippine government in mind when they come out with those policies. So like the proverbial good soldier, you just have to follow [laughs], to toe the government line. But of course as you go up the ranks, you have greater accessibility in influencing how policies are made. I guess one just has to wait for his turn.

M: In your eyes, what is an ideal diplomat?

SA: From the Filipino point of view, I think one should be a generalist; when one goes to a foreign posting, one has to be able to deal with all three pillars; you should be able to tackle any position or posting that is given to you.

M: If you had any advice for students of International Relations or aspiring diplomats, what would that be?

SA: International Relations is a good start. It’s also possible that you’ve already finished your degree when you want to become a diplomat. Fortunately, diplomacy is such a huge field that regardless of your background in university, you would still be able to make good use of your education. For instance, my undergrad education was in agricultural economics. In fact, in the Philippine Foreign Service, there’s a veterinarian, there are medical technologists, there are even priests, so all sorts of backgrounds. But once you are in Foreign Service, you should endeavour to pursue higher studies and specialize in a field you are really interested in. So it should not stop you from pursuing your career in diplomacy if you really want to pursue that.