Notes from the Field

Bilateral Discussion Raises Challenges, Opportunities for New Aquino Administration

February 16, 2011

On February 10, The Asia Foundation hosted in Washington, D.C., a public event on “The Philippines: Challenges and Opportunities for the New Aquino Administration,” as part of the Foundation’s long-running “Asian Perspectives” series. The speakers, drawn from the new Philippine administration of Benigno S. “Noynoy” Aquino III, involved Manuel Quezon III, a noted blogger and Undersecretary of Communications and Strategic Planning in the Office of President; Raymund Quilop, a professor at the University of the Philippines and Assistant Secretary for Strategic Assessment, Department of National Defense; and Yasmin Busran Lao, founding chair of the women’s organization Al-Majadilah Development Foundation and an (unsuccessful) candidate for the national senate on the slate of President Aquino.

This public event came on the heels of a two-day, closed-door discussion with members of the policy community, including the State Department, USAID, Department of Defense, the Embassy of the Philippines, the private sector, and numerous think tanks in the D.C. area. Additional participants from the Philippines were noted broadcast journalist (and now full-time author) Maria Ressa and philanthropist Anton Mari Lim from Zamboanga City, Mindanao, who is on the board of People Power Volunteers for Change – campaign supporters who have organized themselves to help President Aquino’s administration.

These meetings provided an opportunity for U.S. decision-makers to have extended conversations with a group of Filipinos who are in a position to provide insights into economic, political, security, and social challenges facing the Philippines under Aquino after six months in office and still in his administration’s “honeymoon” phase. This effort came on the heels of the first-ever “Philippines-United States Bilateral Strategic Dialogue” in late January, which brought U.S. officials from the State and Defense departments to Manila to pursue an “invigorated alliance and stronger strategic partnership built on mutual respect.” The Philippines is clearly higher up on the radar screen of official Washington, with considerable goodwill toward the new dispensation and interest in engaging in the economic, political, and security spheres.

These positive developments, though, have been considerably tempered by recognition of long-standing problems facing the Philippines. Economically, the new administration has tried to reach out and expressed interest in joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but many obstacles would need to be surmounted in terms of economic policy changes to end legal and even constitutional restrictions on foreign investment in the country. Doubts were also expressed over Philippine foreign policy, with worries about how much the country accommodates China. The Philippines, for instance, did not send its ambassador to the Nobel Prize ceremony last December. President Aquino said that it was out of concern for Filipinos being held on death row in China, which illustrates the more general point that since the welfare of 10 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), whose remittances contribute 11 percent of the country’s GDP, is the number one priority of Philippine foreign policy, the policy can be unpredictable since OFWs are scattered over the globe and unexpected events (such as the turmoil in Egypt or a crisis on the Korean Peninsula) can require official response.

Mindanao, the focus of much U.S. economic and security assistance, generated considerable discussion. Views on this topic ranged widely, with optimism from those who felt that the advent of a popular president, with the political capital to make peace, meant that this was the time for moving forward. Pessimists viewed the current round of negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as a repeat of the situation leading up to the 1996 “Final Peace Agreement” with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), when having an agreement with one insurgent group did not accommodate the demands of another. This point reinforced the emergence of independent moves by a prominent MILF commander, Umbra Kato, that complicate matters down south.

As I noted at the end of the discussion, because of the pressure of day-to-day activities and demands, the two sides rarely have a chance to get into the details of the complex issues of importance to the Philippines and the United States. Given the long and complex (sometimes fraught) relationship between the two countries, the kind of in-depth dialogue offered by the recent bilateral conference is indispensable.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative for the Philippines and Pacific Island Nations. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org.

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