In The News

Inside the Beltway: All Philippines All the Time

May 2, 2012

Of course, the headline is something of an exaggeration of the situation here in Washington, D.C. – in the news, for example, are visits from the prime minister of Japan, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to China – not to mention President Obama’s “surprise” trip to Kabul on the anniversary of Bin Laden’s death.

But for those following the Philippines, every day in the week since the last round of this blog has provided something intriguing to chew on.

On Thursday, The Asia Foundation hosted a roundtable where I joined fellow conflict experts and colleagues to discuss the newly released publication of our long research into gender and conflict in Mindanao. The researchers wanted to go beyond descriptions of the effects of conflict on men and women, to look at how women actively contribute both to management of conflict at the community level, and to peace talks. In the formal peace process, the government of the Philippines has a National Action Plan in pursuit of UN Security Council 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, and has generally included women members of their peace negotiating teams. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front has recently included activist lawyer Raissa Jajurie as a consultant in their peace talks with the government of the Philippines – and they value her opinions. Speaking of community-level conflict, particularly persistent conflict among clans (rido), Wilfredo Torres III from our Philippine office spoke of the diverse perspectives of men and women and how they leverage complementary relations. One of the most important feud settlements, between the Imam and Macapeges clans involved women on both sides – providing information and requiring separate settlements for their own clan’s feuds – even though in the public celebration it was the men who were in the foreground.

On Friday, there was the first of two events designed to “sandwich” the “2+2″ Ministerial Dialogue between Philippine Foreign Affairs and Defense Secretaries Albert del Rosario and Voltaire Gazmin and U.S. Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta. The Asia Foundation and Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) joined host Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to examine economic and political challenges for the Philippines. George Mason University economist John Nye, who has roots in and has done work on the Philippines, argued that fundamental reforms in the labor market (where protectionism limits the high-wage formal sector) and agricultural sector (where farmers awarded agrarian reform land cannot legally sell it) were necessary to allow the Philippines effectively to grow faster. Bert Hofman, until recently the resident representative of the World Bank in the Philippines, noted that the overall level of growth in the Philippines has been respectable but poverty reduction has been disappointing. Asked if the Philippines is likely to become a “tiger cub,” he cited again the already existing high growth in business process outsourcing and the potential for Philippine agriculture to benefit from “ASEAN 2015″ efforts to economic integration – if there was a shift in effort to support high-value crops instead of a constant focus on the basic grains, rice and corn. I cited the reforms in budgeting and financial management that I have mentioned in this blog before, saying that the administration is attempting to correct things and we’ll know in the next couple of years whether these efforts were successful (and then after that whether they will be sustained past the end of President Noynoy Aquino’s term in 2016).

Despite effort on Friday to focus on economics and politics, naturally controversies about the West Philippine/South China Sea cropped up. This same media focus was echoed in coverage of the official event on Monday – examining how much support the U.S. was giving the Philippines in this area (the short answer: while not taking a position on rival territorial claims, the U.S. and the Philippines agreed on the need for a peaceful, “rules-based approach” to maintaining freedom of navigation). The joint statement coming from the talks valiantly included discussion of economic relationships, and a common interest in transparency as joint steering committee members of the international Open Government Partnership – but these items received little media attention.

Tuesday morning it was SAIS’s turn to host (in cooperation with The Asia Foundation and Carnegie Endowment) an event sandwiching the 2+2, with Secretary of National Defense Voltaire Gazmin. Two dozen people from the policy community participated in the off-the-record conversation with Gazmin and his staff. The fact that it was off-the-record means that I cannot write about what was said. I can, however, quote from the public coverage of Monday’s events, that on the possibly controversial increase in military to military relations with the U.S, Secretary Gazmin said: “We are also mindful that our efforts to further our alliance need to be in full consideration of our respective national laws and political context.”

And, today Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario spoke at the Heritage Foundation – a meeting that had to be moved to a larger hall to accommodate all those who wished to attend. Secretary del Rosario opened with how President Noynoy’s anti-corruption and anti-poverty thrust has begun to yield economic gains and is recognized by the participation in the Open Government Partnership. Most of his discussion was about strategic issues, including creating a minimal credible defense posture for the Philippines (defined as the ability to know what was happening in the Philippines’ maritime domain and the ability to deter more incursions). Again audience questions focused on the West Philippine/South China Sea, a number of Chinese media outfits were in attendance, and Secretary del Rosario did add one point to the “short answer” described above:  reassurances that the United States would honor its commitments under the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Of course, Secretary del Rosario refused to speculate on how the Chinese understand the U.S. commitments under the MDT.

To top it all off, the Philippines is hosting the Asian Development Bank (ADB) Annual Meeting this week and CNN is doing a series “Eye on the Philippines.” My cup runneth over.

This is the fifteenth posting in the series, “A Representative Professor,” a weekly series during a teaching sabbatical at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

Steven Rood is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in the Philippines. He can be reached at srood@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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