Nepal and the Philippines may be geographically far apart, but these two countries share many similarities that bring them together. Despite limited bilateral interactions, people to people relations between the two countries are already strong. As both the countries are largely agrarian-based economies and major sources of migrant workers for Gulf countries, they also share common issues and concerns at the regional and global levels. Kosh Raj Koirala of Republica talked to the Non-resident Ambassador of the Philippines to Nepal, Ramon S Bagatsing, Jr, who is currently in Kathmandu in the course of his diplomatic engagements and explore ways to further promote bilateral relations, to understand the current state of the bilateral relations between Nepal and the Philippines, potential areas of mutually beneficial cooperation and ways to further enhance bilateral relations between the two countries. Excerpts:
How do you assess the bilateral relations between Nepal and the Philippines?
Post-pandemic, I find it to be exciting, robust, developing and growing bilateral relations between the Philippines and Nepal. And, we can only move forward from now on. There are a lot of opportunities between our two countries. We are excited about what we can do in terms of trade, agriculture, education, and tourism. Most important of all these things is air connectivity. So, we need to have some kinds of arrangements in terms of flights to and from Nepal. This is but one.
We already have a bilateral consultative mechanism that we established with the government two years ago before the pandemic. In the consultative mechanism, we will have proposals to reach an air service agreement, separate MoUs on tourism and cultural activities, and hopefully bigger exposure events of trade and tourism exhibits in Nepal and the Philippines.
We are also going to work with the Nepal government on tourism projects. We already have a bilateral consultative mechanism that we established with the government two years ago before the pandemic. In the consultative mechanism, we will have proposals to reach an air service agreement, separate MoUs on tourism and cultural activities, and hopefully bigger exposure events of trade and tourism exhibits in Nepal and the Philippines. Since we have a new government in the Philippines, we need to give it time to settle down, appoint necessary cabinet officials. Maybe they can settle down in two to four months and after that we will be submitting all the papers. We hope to have some of these agreements by 2023.
Is there any progress toward inking an Air Service Agreement to start direct flights between Kathmandu and Manila?
Not much progress has been made in this regard yet. In fact, we discussed it before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. So, we are reviving the talks now. Fortunately, Nepal’s ambassador to India, Dr Shankar Sharma has very good friends in the Philippines. That’s a big plus. So, through him we can initiate discussions on this reciprocal arrangement. We look forward to that.
Coming to trade, what do you see are the potential areas where we can engage in mutually beneficial trade interactions?
Our trade interaction at the moment is very low. We have to work on that. However, there is so much potential in this sector. We can work on agriculture, cosmetics and a whole lot of items. But the ticket item is geothermal energy. In terms of trade, there are so many things going on right now. I just do not want to focus on one. But there is a lot of potential.
A large number of Nepali students go to the Philippines for their higher studies? Are there ways to promote the exchange of students between our two countries?
Well, even if we do not have any formal arrangements, we have hundreds of Nepali students going to the Philippines for studies including for aviation training and medicine. They are going to graduate schools and agricultural technical schools in the Philippines. The advantage for Nepal is that you are a visa-free country. Nepali nationals can go to the Philippines without needing a visa. But when Filipinos want to come to Nepal, they need a visa. This is something we need to work on.
Nepal and the Philippines are major sources of migrant workers. A section of people argue that the two countries can work collectively to raise their voices to promote the interests of migrant workers.
Obviously, we can work in this sector as well on the People to People (P2P) basis. Most Filipino women living in Nepal are married to Nepali men. This, people call a Middle East romance. This alone is good enough. That’s a good start. After that everything else follows. Major sources of migrant workers in the Middle East are Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and the Philippines. In the Philippines, we have so many government agencies focusing on the welfare of migrant workers. It is because they contribute around 20 percent of our Gross Domestic Product. So, we call them modern day heroes. The government recognizes them as assets. A good thing to note is that Filipino companies in the Middle East hire Nepali workers. In this sense, we can definitely work together to promote the interests and welfare of migrant workers in various labor destinations including in Gulf countries.
The mountains belong to you and the beaches belong to us. This offers us a huge opportunity to further promote People to People relations.
This shows that we are so much connected to each other already. Are there any initiatives being taken to further enhance people to people relations?
I think Nepal-Philippines Chambers of Commerce and Industry is doing a great job in this regard. It has been doing a fantastic job. As I said, everything starts from a P2P basis and then it grows and develops. So, the interesting products can be marketed in the Philippines and vice versa. There is a lot of potential in this. We are currently looking to further expand it. We need to prepare a framework for this. For example, we need to work on connectivity, air services, MoU on tourism, organizing exhibitions, trade fairs and things like that. Our Consul General Suraj Vaidya has been instrumental in encouraging Filipinos to come to Nepal. The mountains belong to you and the beaches belong to us. This offers us a huge opportunity to further promote P2P relations.
Is there any possibility of increasing Foreign Direct Investment from the Philippines?
This is a big industry. There are also other big players. Let’s now look at geothermal power. We have the advantage in this sector. India, China, Singapore are the big boys in terms of FDI. In fact, we in the Philippines are also trying to attract FDI. But we have to also look at the comparative advantages, not competing with China, the US, India or other countries and their interests. I do not want to be specific now. But based on my conversation with Nepali businesspersons, I see there is a lot of potential in this area as well. We can promote FDI mostly in people-centered projects such as those related to agriculture and education.
How do you think Nepal-Philippines relations will evolve in the coming years?
We have to expand this beyond tourism, go for more business-friendly business ventures and then let it go. And it will grow and when it grows people grow.
Nepal is a beautiful country with great people, lovable, friendly, and super amazing blessed by nature and God. When the outside world discovers Nepal and comes here, they realize wow. This is the reason you have a lot of expats here. We have to expand this beyond tourism, go for more business-friendly business ventures and then let it go. And it will grow and when it grows people grow. This will grow in leaps and bounds. There is a huge potential between our two countries. We look forward to exploiting that potential.