Aquino appoints close aide as foreign minister

Mr Almendras (centre), the newly appointed Philippine Foreign Minister, with President Aquino (at right) and the previous foreign minister, Mr Albert del Rosario. MALACANANG FILE PHOTO
Mr Almendras (centre), the newly appointed Philippine Foreign Minister, with President Aquino (at right) and the previous foreign minister, Mr Albert del Rosario. MALACANANG FILE PHOTO

President's ex-classmate was 'troubleshooter' in foreign policy issues

President Benigno Aquino has named one of his closest aides - a former classmate informally designated "little President" - as the Philippines' new foreign minister.

Mr Jose Rene Almendras was energy minister before Mr Aquino appointed him Secretary to the Cabinet, a post equivalent to a chief of staff, in 2012.

Mr Aquino, 56, told reporters yesterday: "He has my utmost trust and confidence.

"But at the end of the day, it's his commitment to stay with me, through all of the hardship in this post, with the expectation that he will do it for only 113 days."

Mr Aquino will step down in June.

Meanwhile, Mr Almendras, 55, is expected to toe Mr Aquino's hawkish line towards China.

The President had pressed for the filing of a 4,000-page case with an international court in The Hague in 2013, claiming that China's claims to nearly all of the 3.5 million sq km South China Sea are violations of international laws.

Mr Aquino has also backed a 998 billion peso (S$29.5 billion) military modernisation programme, as well as closer ties with the United States, Japan and Vietnam, to build a more credible force to challenge China in the high seas. Yesterday, Mr Aquino announced that the Philippines will be leasing five surveillance aircraft from Japan for longer-range patrols in disputed waters.

Defending his choice of foreign minister, Mr Aquino told reporters that Mr Almendras had been his "troubleshooter" in some crucial foreign policy matters.

Mr Almendras led negotiations in 2013 that headed off plans by Hong Kong to impose punitive sanctions on the Philippines over a hostage crisis in 2010 that cost the lives of eight Hong Kong tourists.

He also led talks that year to placate Taiwan, after a Philippine Coast Guard unit shot at a Taiwanese fishing boat, killing its captain.

Taipei had threatened to stop renewing the work permits of thousands of Filipinos working in Taiwan because of the incident.

Insiders said Mr Almendras is part of a circle of three former university classmates of Mr Aquino who are often at his side at social events, overseas trips and when he wants to unwind, usually during karaoke sessions.

Mr Almendras was president of Manila Water Company, one of two big corporations supplying water in metropolitan Manila, when Mr Aquino named him energy minister in 2010.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 10, 2016, with the headline 'Aquino appoints close aide as foreign minister'. Print Edition | Subscribe