MANILA, Philippines – The Philippines expects to have a “clearer understanding” of its strategic partnership with the United States in at least 4 key areas, including political and security cooperation, when US President Barack Obama visits the country for the first time next week.
Days before the visit, there remains the looming possibility that Obama and President Benigno Aquino III will witness the signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation agreement between the two countries.
Communications Secretary Herminio Coloma Jr said in a news briefing on Wednesday, April 23, that Obama’s visit will be the “peak” of high-level exchanges between the two countries under the current administration.
He said topics to be discussed by the leaders when they meet in Malacañang are political and security cooperation, trade and investments expansion, tourism and development cooperation, deepening people-to-people ties, and the rehabilitation of areas affected by Super Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan).
“From the Philippine perspective, we would like to be able to arrive at a clearer understanding with the US on important aspects of the strategic partnership in those areas,” Coloma said.
Responding to questions, he said the two leaders will surely discuss the territorial dispute between China and the Philippines.
“There are evolving and changing realities in global and regional security, and it is apparent that the situation in the South China Sea is part of that evolving situation,” Coloma said.
Asked if Aquino will seek an assurance from Obama regarding the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China, Coloma said, “President Aquino will certainly discuss with President Obama what he believes to be our priority concerns and concerns that are aligned to our national interest.”
Obama is expected to arrive in the country early afternoon Monday, April 28, and will proceed to Malacañang for bilateral talks with Aquino, followed by a joint press conference. He will be feted to a Palace dinner in his honor.
On his second day, the US President has engagements with the US embassy in the Philippines, and is expected to visit the World War II American cemetery in Taguig.
Deal or no deal
The main issue that continues to generate buzz about the visit is the possible signing of a defense deal that will allow the increased presence of American troops in the country.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose L Cuisia Jr told Rappler that both sides are “still hopeful” the signing will take place during Obama’s visit.
“We’re still working on it. Hopefully there will be a signing,” he said.
He said concerns that the agreement is being rushed are not valid, citing the fact there have already been 8 rounds of negotiations between the two nations.
“That’s the impression people are getting. To say it is being rushed, it will be done in a few weeks and a few months – it’s been over a year of back and forth between Manila and Washington,” Cuisia said.
The Philippine panel negotiating an agreement with the US has submitted a draft of the agreement for Aquino’s review.
The US and the Philippines have had a wide-ranging security partnership. The treaty alliance between the Philippines and the US “has been a cornerstone of peace and stability in the region,” said Malacañang. The United States is the country’s only defense treaty ally.
The partnership has also included joint military exercises, humanitarian assistance and disaster response (HADR) activities, and defense and security assistance in support of the Philippines’ aim to enhance defense capabilities.
Coloma said the Philippines will also explore the feasibility of joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, although Cuisia admitted the Philippines still has a ways to go.
“The Philippines may take some years to meet all the requirements. We also have some restrictions on foreign ownership in certain sectors that will prevent us from complying fully with TPP requirements,” Cuisia said. “If you have those economic restrictions then how do you comply?”
TPP membership would require the Philippines to amend its constitution, which the Aquino administration does not support.
The TPP, a trade and economic partnership, began as an obscure grouping of Singapore, Brunei, New Zealand and Chile but it gained momentum when the US joined in 2008, with Obama since focusing on the potential pact as a tool to advance American economic interests in the Asia Pacific.
Currently, 12 countries – Australia, Brunei, Chile, Canada, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States, and Vietnam – are negotiating the agreement.
The US is one of the Philippines’ major trading partners, and a top source of development assistance, amounting to over $1 billion in the last two years, for various programs from defense capabilities enhancement to good governance reform support, poverty reduction, and improving public infrastructure.
The two countries also enjoy strong people-to-people ties with about 2.27 million Filipinos living in the US. Thousands of US tourists also visit the Philippines annually and vice-versa.
Obama’s visit comes just days after the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project shows a higher percentage of Filipinos surveyed – 85% to be exact – having a more “favorable” view of the American people. Americans come second in the survey, with 84% saying they have a “favorable” view of themselves. – Rappler.com