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U.S.-ASEAN Meeting is Philippine President Aquino’s First Trip Abroad

September 22, 2010

By Steven Rood

Almost three months after taking office on June 30, President Noynoy Aquino is this week making his first trip out of the Philippines, traveling to New York to address the UN General Assembly and to attend the 2nd U.S.-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, also known as the U.S.-ASEAN Summit, on September 24. He will round out his U.S. trip in California’s San Francisco Bay Area, where he plans to meet local business leaders, interact with the Filipino-American community, and address the gala dinner of the newly-established Philippine Development Foundation.

President Aquino is not a keen traveler, famously lacking a valid passport when he assumed office. In this, as in so many things, he is styled as the opposite of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who was sharply criticized for traveling too much and for claiming her trips brought her country gains in aid, security, etc. President Aquino, who has made no secret that he believes his main challenges are domestic, vows to be frugal in traveling (with a 57-person delegation, much smaller than President Arroyo’s 100+-person entourage), and says he will only travel if he feels that concrete value will be gained in the areas of job creation and aid. As an example, having doubts about its utility, President Aquino decided against attending next month’s Asia-Europe Summit Meeting in Brussels.

The Philippines has over the years tried to diversify its foreign policy away from a narrow focus on its treaty ally, the United States. Thus, the Department of Foreign Affairs tried to arrange a quick trip to Indonesia and Vietnam before travel to the UN General Assembly, so that President Aquino’s first foreign destination would be an ASEAN-member country, rather than the U.S. But the fallout from the August 23 bus hostage crisis that left eight of 15 Chinese tourists dead hijacked Aquino’s attention, and his immediate travel plans. Now, it looks as though his travel to Vietnam will have to wait until the scheduled ASEAN Summit in Hanoi at the end of October. A trip to Japan for the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in November is the next confirmed trip on his foreign agenda.

President Aquino is certain to bring back some aid from this trip. In New York, he will witness the formal signing of the $434 million Compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a grant designed to build rural roads, improve tax revenues, and alleviate poverty through conditional cash transfers (cash payments given to poor households that meet certain behavioral requirements). The Compact has been in development for years, but the Arroyo administration could not quite bring it to completion (due largely to U.S. government concerns about corruption in the Philippines – which President Aquino made his signature issue:  his campaign slogan was “If No Corruption, No Poverty”).

The U.S-ASEAN Summit itself will also be important, and not only because it will be the closest President Aquino gets to a meeting with President Obama. Just as important is the opportunity for ASEAN leaders to get to know President Aquino. In particular, his administration has agreed to have Malaysia continue as the facilitator for peace talks with the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak will take this opportunity to have a one-on-one with President Aquino to pave the way for the formal resumption of peace talks in October.

In the ASEAN context, it will be necessary, albeit uncomfortable, to address the ongoing debate surrounding the South China Sea. At the ASEAN Regional Forum in July, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States has “a national interest in freedom of navigation, open access to Asia’s maritime commons, and respect for international law in the South China Sea.” China’s repost was that such comments are “virtually an attack on China.” Not much was made of this in Philippine circles until Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo (who was not at the Forum), was asked if he supported Secretary Clinton’s statements and replied, “It’s ASEAN and China. Can I make myself clear? It’s ASEAN and China. Is that clear enough?” Given that a number of other ASEAN countries had also raised the issue, some wondered if the Philippines was breaking ranks with ASEAN. The Philippines Department of Foreign Affairs later clarified privately that the Philippines welcomes expressions of views by all stakeholders, including the views expressed at the ASEAN Regional Forum by Secretary Clinton. Experts are predicting that a joint statement will be issued at this U.S.-ASEAN Summit, covering freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and reaffirmation of the 2002 “Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.”

Relations with China go beyond the South China Sea, of course. President Aquino has expressed a wish to see Chinese leaders while in New York, a move that is particularly important in the wake of the bus hostage incident that left Chinese authorities questioning how the Philippines handled the situation. He has spoken of adding China to his upcoming travel schedule because “China has to be given its due course and due recognition.”

This is the point where President Noynoy Aquino, a president who wishes to focus on domestic concerns, finds himself drawn into international affairs and great power politics.

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

Related locations: Philippines
Related programs: International Cooperation

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