After a highly successful run managing a multinational business and representing the Philippines in capitals around the world (including Madrid, Mexico City and London), Antonio Lagdameo was looking forward to a quiet retirement growing orchids and breeding race horses.
Then he got a call from an old friend.
“President Duterte asked me to serve again as Ambassador in London – and when he asks you don’t say no!” he chuckles.
The two families go way back: the Ambassador’s wife grew up in the same town as the President and the Ambassador got to know him as Davao’s easy-riding motorcycling mayor.
So in an important year for the Philippines – hosting the ASEAN Chairmanship in its 50th year and the all-important IMO council elections – President Duterte wanted someone in London he knew could deliver.
And Lagdameo hasn’t disappointed: for ASEAN’s 50th anniversary, he co-hosted an ASEAN business forum attended by the Trade Secretary Liam Fox, followed by a glittering reception at Lancaster House. Then at last week’s IMO Assembly the Philippines was returned to the IMO Council (category C), despite intense competition.
“The IMO is an important institution for us because The Philippines is a big maritime nation – Filipinos are great seafarers, we are situated on strategic shipping lanes and we have extensive territorial waters,” remarks Lagdameo.
With Britain leaving the EU, Duterte also wanted a businessman in London to capitalize on opportunities opening up after Brexit. “The UK is among the largest trading partners with the Philippines, but there is room for improvement,” admits Lagdameo, adding: “There are currently trade deals with the EU under which a lot of the trade with the UK is governed. So we would be looking towards a bilateral one once the existing ones fall away, maybe even on enhanced terms.”
There are plenty of reasons for Britain to want to strengthen economic ties with the Philippines, which has a galloping growth rate of nearly 7%.
“There are other good reasons to invest,” Lagdameo adds: “We speak English, we’re good workers, and we have a market of 104 million plus the rest of ASEAN. And we have a great geography located between two economic giants, the US and China.”
Being friendly with both rival superpowers is central to President Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” as he calls it. “The Chinese have now opened their markets and our economy is booming. And we are not forgetting our old friends [the USA],” insists Lagdameo.
“His brand of diplomacy seems to be working,” smiles the Ambassador. Duterte opted to “park” the territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea in favour of deepening economic ties and supporting infrastructure projects.
Similarly, the visit of President Trump to Manila last November demonstrated the continued importance of the close security relationship, particularly quelling the recent ISIS insurgency in Marawi.
“An improving security situation improves investor confidence,” says Ambassador Lagdameo who is confident Duterte is the man to restore security, having witnessed first-hand the impact of his reform programmes as mayor of Davao.
The President’s tough crackdown on criminality has alarmed human rights groups, but the Ambassador welcomes the firmer line on law and order. “I don’t think people outside the country understand the extent of the [drugs] menace. Filipinos saw how he cleaned up Davao and they want him to clean up the country. We can see tangible results from this now – even other crimes and corruption have decreased.”
Duterte is also best placed to conclude the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and implement self-rule in Bangsamoro, claims Lagdameo. “He is the first president from the region and he has Muslim blood so these groups know where his heart is,” says the Ambassador, who points out Britain’s helpful role in the process. “A few years back under a British initiative the MILF visited the UK to observe the Northern Ireland Peace Process.”
It’s an interesting example of the wide-ranging bilateral ties, but for ordinary Brits and Filipinos the people-to-people links are the most enduring feature of the relationship – from Filipino nurses in the NHS to X Factor contestants on TV.
“Our diaspora is an asset. People here feel as welcome as they always have been – probably even more because post-Brexit Britain going to need nurses! This is one of the things that we are going to be negotiating,” he says. But his message when visiting the 200 plus Filipino associations is that they are welcome back home too. “We have a growing middle class here and now my job is to incentivize them to return to the Philippines where our economy needs their skills!”
To tempt more British tourists to visit his homeland, the Ambassador hosts a varied programme of culinary and cultural events at the embassy. He opens his doors to the community too with an initiative started during his previous posting offering training to the Filipinos to upgrade their skills – from IT to financial literacy. It keeps the embassy in touch with its extended family and for Ambassador Lagdameo, a committed family man, that gives him great satisfaction.