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Remembering diplomat Rod Severino

05:04 AM May 14, 2019

I knew him as “Usec. Sev” or “RCS” when I first worked under him in the mid-’90s at the Department of Foreign  Affairs (DFA). Those were exciting years. China’s occupation of Panganiban Reef had just been discovered, and RCS was in charge. Interagency meetings were convened to help strategize reaction to China. A “script” was developed in preparation for the first occasion in 1995 when the two countries were to sit together to discuss the brewing tensions. We even simulated the negotiations. Months  later, Manila and Beijing would conclude the first bilateral code of conduct in  the South China Sea.

What first struck me about RCS was his openness to ideas from many sources, and his trust in young DFA officers. At one bilateral meeting, I recall watching a junior diplomat sit in a corner typing the draft outcome document of the negotiations, even before the talks began. This was no simple academic exercise; we knew the results we wanted, and we wanted them on that document.

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I was grateful that he included me—then a young analyst and a DFA outsider—in his official team as an adviser on China matters. This was not typical of the inward-looking bureaucratic culture at the DFA, and it earned him many a brickbat from colleagues, but this was how RCS liked to run things. You needed to be prepared, and with fresh, “out-of-the-box” ideas. The Chinese were always prepared and he knew that, having assisted at the opening of the Philippine Embassy in
Beijing in the mid-’70s and serving there during the transition years as China opened its doors to the world.

He used to describe cultural relations with China in the 1980s as the most active of all such ties by the Philippines, bar none. The continuous stream of intellectuals, artists, musicians and athletes proved this. I was among the first Filipino exchange students sent to Beijing then. Our cultural affairs officer there (the tenacious Nona Zaldivar) never let red tape or politics hinder people-to-people links.

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Those were the good times that many of us have now forgotten. There were territorial disputes between the two countries even then, but that did not matter much in those days as diplomacy prevailed in the end.

RCS also talked about the “concentric circles” of Philippine foreign policy—how our national interests were most deeply intertwined with those geographically closest to us. The first circle involved Malaysia (where he also served as Philippine ambassador), and Indonesia (as Asean secretary general based in Jakarta). Today, these three countries’ cooperation on boundary issues, maritime security and counterterrorism underscore this.

People say that good fences make good neighbors, but there is also no gainsaying the value of dialogue and patient engagement in building trust. Where there is trust among neighbors, it may even be possible to live without fences at all.

Even more amazing to me then were Severino’s press conferences following negotiations on maritime disputes. I could imagine him weighing his words carefully under the prying eyes of media and flashing TV cameras. He would speak in a quiet, calm and self-assured manner, saying not one word more and not one word less than was necessary. Each sentence measured for effect, his face devoid of any emotion.

Such polish, prudence and discipline are things that we perhaps rarely see in today’s world of cussing, tweeting and instagramming officialdom.

So, yes, Rod Severino was to me an inspiration and a source of learning for what diplomacy should be like, now and in the future. Always be prepared. Know what results you need to get. Be ready to think out of the box. Deepen your understanding with those closest to you. Not only governments, but people, need to connect to one another. Think before you speak. Say no more than is needed. Then think some more before you act.

Aileen Baviera teaches international  relations and Chinese studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is president of Asia Pacific Pathways for Progress and former head of research of the Foreign Service Institute.

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