IN our foreign policy and diplomacy class, our professor, a former Secretary-General of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, taught us to take culture seriously and to not only focus on verbal cues. The non-verbal dimensions of interactions of leaders matters a lot, and sometimes more than what they express verbally.
Remember the time Russian President Valdimir Putin brought his female Labrador during his 2007 meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has cynophobia? It was a subtle of intimidation.
(from The Telegraph)
How about the 2004 meeting between Libya’s leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair? Qaddafi pointed the sole of his shoe towards Blair. In Arab culture, that’s an insult. Obviously, Blair didn’t know it at that time; thus, in the picture, Blair was smiling as the sole of Qaddafi’s shoe pointed towards him. Arab people quickly noticed it.
(from The Telegraph)
It has been a year since President Rodrigo Duterte had that historic visit in China — a détente mission to rekindle centuries of cordial relations between our nations, dashed by moments of tensions only in the last 40 years.
For me, Duterte’s October 2016 visit to China was as significant as Nixon’s visit in 1972. The purpose of the visit is the same: bridge diplomatic barriers. Just like Duterte, Nixon was welcomed at the airport by China’s foreign minister. At the time it was Zhou Enlai, one of Asia’s finest statesman.
I was smiling when I saw Duterte’s solemn and intimate conversation with Wang Yi, China’s current foreign minister. Why? Because I was reminded of how this interaction had so much more connection, warmth, and sincerity than the interaction between Nixon and Zhou. Nixon and Zhou’s looked like between two powers; Duterte and Wang’s looked like between two brothers.
Wang warmly welcomed Duterte at the airport. He offered his hand, Duterte took it. He touched Duterte’s lower arm; Duterte reciprocated with a double handshake, conveying a message that you are trustworthy and honest.
The handshake was firm. It wasn’t released quickly, signifying interest, sincerity, attention. Wang’s face was so close to Duterte. Both their faces were solemn, as Wang was whispering something to Duterte. Then Wang gripped Duterte’s upper arm.
At the moment Wang touched Duterte’s right arm, Duterte’s eyes closed for a few seconds, he looked like as if he was relishing that moment of intense proximity. And I understood why: Wang’s grip put him much closer to Duterte’s personal space. In Chinese culture, this proximity is only reserved for people you trust.
During the early morning of 8 February 2017, during our visit in Malacañan, I asked Duterte a question I think wasn’t ask by traditional media to Duterte.
I asked: “Mayor, for me, one of the most important moments in Philippine diplomatic history was that moment when Wang Yi and you had that intimate moment the moment you arrived in Beijing. Wang Yi was telling you something during that time. I don’t know if you can divulge it, but what did Wang Yi tell you?”
While I was asking this, Duterte rested his face on his fist, listening intently. His answer, while smiling and speaking with a solemn tone: “Welcome to China Mr. President. You are welcome here. Here you can relax. We are Brothers, We are Asians.”
After that encounter, Duterte was greeted with a bouquet of flowers by a little Chinese girl wearing a red coat.
During the 2008 Beijing Olympics one of the performances were two giant marionettes: a Chinese ancient warrior accompanied by a little girl, symbolising Modern China.
As sinologist David J. Davies wrote in Qin Shihuang’s Terracotta Warriors and Commemorating the Cultural State, the cheerfulness and playfulness of the little girl was said to symbolize “timeless values of caring, peace, and friendship.” And in China, red is the color of happiness and good fortune.
Read in that light: Duterte, a Filipino modern warrior, was welcomed by modern China, in a spirit of caring, peace, and friendship, wishing him happiness and good fortune.
(Published in The Manila Times on 24 October 2017)
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