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Aquino’s First Official Washington Visit Reflects “Re-Balance” Toward Asia

June 13, 2012

It’s been a roller-coaster week for the Filipino-American community as they welcomed Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on his first official visit to Washington, D.C., and at the same time, were shocked by boxing champion Manny Pacquiao’s surprising loss of  his world welterweight title. Like many Filipino-Americans, I was simultaneously thrilled that Aquino was being hosted by President Obama in the White House, and dismayed by Manny’s loss. Although the leaders of the United States and the Philippines have met four times over the last two years, this was the first time that Obama officially hosted Aquino.

Aquino with Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton welcomes Philippine President Benigno Aquino for his first official visit to Washington. Photo by Bing Branigin.

I was honored to participate in two events last week with President Aquino: the launch of the U.S.-Philippines Society on June 7 and the U.S. State Department luncheon hosted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on June 8. I was particularly pleased to see that a U.S.-Philippines Society was being launched, since many other countries in Southeast Asia have established similar organizations (such as USINDO, U.S.-Thailand Business Council, etc.). It’s my hope the Society can realize its mission of “elevating the Philippines’ profile in the U.S.” One of the highlights was witnessing Senator Richard Lugar, a longtime friend of and advocate for the Philippines in Congress, receive the Order of Lakandula, one of the highest honors given by the Philippines to a Filipino or foreign citizen, for his “significant contributions to the enhancement of the Philippines-U.S. Alliance.”

Both the launch and President Aquino’s visit are evidence of the maturing U.S.-Philippines relationship. The Philippines is the oldest of the United States’ five treaty allies in Asia. Over the past few years, there has been a heightened level of engagement between both sides, including the first bilateral strategic dialogue in Manila in January 2011 and the inaugural 2+2 meeting between the two countries’ top diplomats and defense chiefs in April this year. The Philippines was also selected to be one of four pilot countries for USAID’s Partnership for Growth initiative, which mobilizes the resources of both governments to address the most serious constraints to economic growth and development in the Philippines.

Of course, all of this is happening in the context of the Obama administration’s “rebalance” toward Asia, which encompasses both additional security and economic emphasis on the region.

On the domestic front, President Aquino’s administration is coming off of a high note, with the economy posting 6.4 percent growth in the first quarter (a two-year high) and the government  having recently convicted Chief Justice Renato Corona on corruption charges. Aquino has made good governance the centerpiece of his government, and last year the Philippines signed on as one of the founding governments of the Open Government Partnership, a multilateral initiative that aims to secure concrete commitments from governments to promote transparency, empower citizens, fight corruption, and harness new technologies to strengthen governance. At the State Department luncheon, I was seated next to Greg Domingo, the Philippine Secretary for Trade and Industry, who noted that the Philippines has just received a credit rating upgrade (to positive) from Moody’s and explained he was on his way to New York to meet with other credit ratings agencies and potential investors.

I was pleased to hear Secretary Clinton announce at the State Department luncheon that the Philippine and U.S. governments signed an agreement to “spur joint efforts on science and technology,” and also that the U.S. government would increase the number of Peace Corps volunteers sent to the Philippines (which has the second oldest program in the world). Given the importance of the situation in the South China Sea (or West Philippines Sea, depending on who you talk to), it wasn’t a surprise when Secretary Clinton said that the U.S. will “support the construction, outfitting, and training of a new National Coast Watch Center in the Philippines.”

Overall, the increased level of cooperation between the U.S. and the Philippines is reassuring, particularly on the economic front. But, while the U.S. rebalances toward Asia, it is critical that the Philippines not only continue to cooperate with the U.S. on security issues but that it also positions itself as an important economic and trade partner (despite not being in the Trans-Pacific Partnership). My hope is that the Philippines can maintain its upward trajectory of sustainable economic growth and that the government will continue its fight against corruption, particularly leading up to the 2013 mid-term elections and 2016 presidential elections. I also look forward to the Pacquaio-Bradley rematch in November when Pacman takes back his welterweight title!

Anna Bantug-Herrera is The Asia Foundation’s assistant director in the Washington, D.C., office. She can be reached at abantugherrera@asiafound-dc.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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