New York is home to arguably the world’s most multicultural place of learning: the United Nations International School. Its 1,500 pupils are mostly children of diplomats, from more than 122 nations.
Given the fragile state of Sino-Filipino relations, Erlinda Basilio, Manila’s new ambassador to China, might have expected to receive the cold shoulder upon taking up her post in Beijing in 2013. But Basilio is a seasoned veteran with more than 40 years of diplomatic experience who was chosen for the job to improve the countries’ frosty relations.
With a grandmotherly warmth, easy smile and hearty laugh, she doesn’t strike a particularly threatening figure, either. It’s a fact not lost on 69-year-old Basilio. “We don’t harbour any ill-feeling towards the Chinese government or the Chinese people. That’s why they sent me here; they sent an old woman,” she says good-humouredly.
Jokes aside, Basilio understands the delicate nature of her job. Manila has sought arbitration with a UN tribunal over Beijing’s sovereignty claim over the resource-rich waters of the South China Sea, which are also claimed by the Philippines and several other countries. China has refused to participate in the proceedings and retaliated by attempting to isolate the Philippines diplomatically. “They are making it so difficult for us,” Basilio says. “The narrative here in China is that we are the troublemaker, we are the bad boy.”
In Beijing, however, Basilio has cultivated friendships in the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs as one of the key Filipino diplomats involved in talks over the South China Sea in recent years. Now as ambassador, she believes the key to re-establishing trust is keeping the lines of communication open.
A rare moment of conciliation came in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, she says, when China sent disaster response teams to devastated areas of the Philippines. Although Beijing was blasted internationally for its initial low-ball aid offer, Basilio is quick to note that the criticism didn’t come from Manila. “Whatever they gave to us is something that is greatly appreciated,” she says. “We will never forget what they did.”
Basilio tells her Chinese diplomatic counterparts that neighbours are bound to have disputes, especially when they share a property line. But even though the Filipino side wants to erect an invisible fence between them, that doesn’t mean an end to their friendship. “We just want to live in peace with our neighbour. It’s just a strip of water that separates us.” She pauses for effect. “Part of which is ours.”
Embassy of the Philippines in Beijing
The embassy: It was one of the first to be built in Beijing’s tree-lined Jianguomen diplomatic district in the 1970s. Basilio has decorated the dining room with figurines, vases and glassware from her former postings in Stockholm (where she was ambassador), Havana, Tokyo and Geneva.
The staff: The embassy has more than 50 staff including attachés working in trade, tourism and agriculture. Basilio frequently travels – she is also accredited to Kazakhstan, Mongolia and North Korea.
The challenges: One of Basilio’s main concerns is drumming up Chinese investment in the Philippines. The country received just $65m (€47.3m) in investments from China in 2012 – half the amount Filipinos invested in China.
Canada’s new emphasis on “economic diplomacy” – turning diplomats into dealmakers – has been met with concern by former ambassadors and has also led to a host of sporting metaphors. International trade minister Ed Fast is invoking the spirit of ice-hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, calling on Canadian enterprise to join a “championship-bound team and bring home our own Stanley Cup”.
Paul Heinbecker, former Canadian ambassador to Germany and the UN, stays with the sports theme. “We’ve basically removed ourselves from the playing field,” he says. “We’re either on the sidelines, or with this particular policy we’re selling hot dogs under the stands.”
Argentina has opened a new embassy in Maputo – its 11th embassy in Africa. Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is hoping to boost trade between her country and the African continent by setting up in the Mozambique capital but her government will also be hoping that the stronger links will help combat drug traffickers. Following a 2012 seizure of a Nigeria-bound shipment of cocaine worth €15m at Buenos Aires’ Ezeiza airport, closing off international drug routes through West Africa has become a priority.