“Denmark needs to upgrade and intensify its relationships in the Asia Pacific, and I believe we will see Denmark more active in this region,” says new Danish Ambassador to the Philippines, Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin.
Before leaving for Southeast Asia, the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen told the new Danish Ambassador to the Philippines, Franz-Michael Skjold Mellbin that “while the eyes of Europe are to our East, the future lies in the Far East.” This is very much in line with the Ambassador’s own beliefs.
“My personal belief is that this is the timely moment where the Philippines can really take off,” the ambassador says.
The shifting strategic situation in this region is also affecting the relationships.
“Denmark has a very strong economic relationship with China. But we also want to diversify by having a factory in China and another in a country in Southeast Asia. We call that a ‘China Plus One’ strategy.”
Ambassador Mellbin says that Denmark has identified six priority sectors which he will focus on during his time in the Philippines. These include 1) agriculture, 2) energy, 3) sustainability, 4) maritime 5) defense, and 6) digitalisation.
“Regarding the maritime sector, this is an area where we have lots of connections, with Denmark as one of the leading shipping nations in the world, employing thousands of Filipino maritime professionals. So we see an opportunity for cooperation on that. I know this is a high priority for the Filipino government, and likewise for the Danish government.”
A relating sector is the security and geostrategic side of the Philippines.
“There is great interest in freedom of the high seas in Denmark and, no doubt, it is absolutely critical also towards our economies. The Philippines sits in a very critical strategic location and naturally attracts a lot of attention from stakeholders right now so Denmark needs to help the Philippines deal with what’s going on within its territorial waters, and help defend its interest in the maritime space.”
Energy is another important sector:
“There’s an energy crisis in the Philippines and its President has made it one of his administration’s priorities. Filipinos suffer from limited access to electricity, unstable power supply, and high electricity pricesmakles the energy sector an an area of interest for Danish investors who want to invest in the Philippines.”
The Danish Embassy in Manila has just launched ‘SusDANEable’ – an energy campaign to showcase Denmark’s energy success story and to highlight opportunities for collaboration with the Philippines in its own green transition.
Danish Ambassador’s Japan and Afghanistan milestones
Ambassador Mellbin joined the Danish Foreign Service in 1985, and has previously served in China and as Ambassador of Denmark to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Japan and Afghanistan, as well as being the European Union Special Representative (EUSR) for Afghanistan and Pakistan and Head of the EU Delegation to Afghanistan.
Ambassador Mellbin knows the Philippines in-depth as he was previously Asia Director and an alternate Governor for the Asian Development Bank (ADB). He describes the region as “one of the most interesting areas in the world”.
“I’ve really been dealing a lot with this region and specifically with the Philippines in various ways previously, including disputes in the South China Sea. It’s fascinating that I now get to see it also from a third perspective, having served in China, Japan and now the Philippines.”
Peacebuilding in Afghanistan
“I believe I had my largest diplomatic success in Afghanistan because I was fortunate to be able to facilitate the first peace deal in Afghanistan for over 30 years.” Peace was achieved between the Government of Afghanistan and Hezbi Islami (an Islamist organization).
“This peace deal showed to the Afghan people that peace is possible, and a lot of people were very sceptical and believed that it was not going to work out, but it did. Peace is not easy; it’s about creating something new. It’s not just about the absence of violence, but also to create social peace.”
Operating in a country like Afghanistan also implies a steep learning curve.
“Of course you learn a lot, and one of the big privileges of being a special representative or an ambassador is that you get in contact with a lot of incredibly intelligent, talented, ambitious and inspiring people. And you learn from that; you learn to understand the world much better. It’s a very complex world out there and being able to manoeuvre in it is something that is increasingly important for everyone; for businesses, countries etc. And having that working experience does allow you to better see what’s going on and why things are happening. Those skills are extremely useful in many places,” thinks the ambassador.
From peace-making efforts in Afghanistan, Ambassador Mellbin learnt a “very important lesson” that he is also seeing in the Philippines, namely the crucial need for structural change.
“I believe its government understands that structural change is needed to unleash the full potential of the Philippines. But structural change is difficult; there are lots of countries around the world where everybody knows what the right thing to do is, but it doesn’t happen because you can’t build enough political and social consensuses around structural change. Structural change could unleash huge benefits and the Philippines could become not only a modern economy but also a high income economy even in the next decade or fifteen years.”
Ambassador Mellbin will be driving this agenda during his tenure in the country.
“I’m very passionate about this. It’s at the core of diplomacy to make the world work – even in difficult circumstances such as now. Because it’s better for people who face problems in their lives. There are lots of issues, and growing the economy would strengthen the resilience of the Philippines and contribute tremendously to improving the lives of people which – at the end of the day – is what matters,” thinks the ambassador.
Ambassador Mellbin presented his credentials as Ambassador of the Kingdom of Denmark to His Excellency President Ferdinand Romualdez Marcos Jr. on 13 October 2022. Earlier in the year he moved to Manila with his wife Eva Fischer-Mellbin, while their two sons are currently working and studying in Copenhagen.
Both are keen on using the opportunity to dive during their time in the Philippines.
“We enjoy diving a lot and the Philippines is the best place in the world to dive in, so we had the chance to come previously for diving trips to various places,” explains Franz-Michael and points out the country as one of 17 mega-biodiverse countries of the world. It ranks fifth in the number of plant species and maintains 5% of the world’s flora: “It’s amazing when it comes to biodiversity.”
With an interest in photography, Ambassador Mellbin is drawn to Filipino sceneries and lifestyle. “I love taking pictures and videos, and Philippines is also an amazing place to take drone shots in.”
“If our time plan allows it, my wife and I will try to go out on vacations and travel the Philippines. For example, connecting to a recent visit to Palawan for a business seminar with officials from Denmark, we spent the weekend there on one of the islands. So I think it’s a country that easily lends itself for some vacation time too,” said Ambassador Mellbin.
During the weekends, the couple also like going outside of the capital Manila.
“I like biking in the hills outside the city and so does my wife,” he says.
“During office days I’m very much restricted to the car – unfortunately. I would like to bicycle more also officially, but the conditions for biking could be better here in Manila so it’s difficult. Back in Copenhagen I would bike to the office every day.”
In fact, Franz-Michael has personally been advocating biking actively for many years.
“I have an international cycling blog and have done lots of photography to promote cycling. I have a Flickr page and some of my pictures are also for sale, where the proceeds from the sales of pictures go to Afghan charities.”
Denmark is known for cycling and there is even a new online cycling knowledge sharing platform: Cycling – Danish Solutions to counter the environmental and sustainability challenges faced by many cities all over the world in promoting active mobility.
The ambassador hopes that conditions for biking could improve in general in the Philippines.