[OPINION] Philippines-U.S. friendship rings stronger in 2018
Mabuhay, Pilipinas! The holiday season is a time of celebration and reflection. Looking back over the past 12 months, 2018 was a fantastic year for the Philippine-United States relationship. I'm proud of all that we accomplished with our Philippine friends and partners to improve livelihoods, spur greater trade and investment opportunities, and enhance peace and security.
Undoubtedly, the biggest success was the return of the 3 Balangiga Bells. I was privileged to witness their arrival at Villamor Air Base alongside our Filipino friends. Considerable efforts by many people made the return possible, and demonstrated that we can achieve anything when we work together for a common purpose. As President Rodrigo Duterte proclaimed at the ceremony in Eastern Samar, the return "heralds a new and more vibrant chapter in our bilateral relations."
My October visit to Marawi has been one of my most moving experiences as ambassador. Seeing the devastation firsthand enabled me to better grasp the profound impact on people's lives. From the onset of the siege, the United States has provided humanitarian assistance to the displaced and security assistance to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). In Marawi, I announced new funding under our Marawi Response Project to improve the lives of displaced families and host communities, bringing total US government assistance for the Marawi response to nearly P3.2 billion. We continue to stand by the people of Marawi as they rebuild their city and their livelihoods.
We made considerable progress on bilateral trade, including several achievements that resolved outstanding issues under our Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. Whether it was strengthening agricultural trade, funding supply chain development initiatives, or partnering on aviation infrastructure development, we're working hard to become the Philippines' top trade and investment partner. We are fortunate to have strong private sector partners leading the way, including over 600 companies in the American Chamber of Commerce.
Our ironclad military alliance was forged fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in World War II and Korea. This year, the embassy partnered with the Philippine Veterans Affairs Office to award 91 Congressional Gold Medals to Filipino World War II veterans, some more than 100 years old. Their unbelievable acts of heroism and sacrifice were critical in the fight for freedom and democracy in the Asia-Pacific.
This security alliance, one of our oldest military partnerships, is now more important than ever. In 2018, we strongly supported the AFP's modernization efforts – and the Philippines' vital role in maintaining regional security – through the transfer of more than P1.8 billion in military equipment. The Philippines was the largest recipient of US foreign military financing in Asia. We also saw substantive progress with our Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which will enhance interoperability and the AFP's disaster response capabilities. Together, we continue to fight terrorism, protect maritime spaces and freedom of navigation, and provide humanitarian assistance when disaster strikes.
Almost every Filipino I've met during my time here has some ties to the United States through personal experience, relatives, or friends. Hearing their stories, I've come to believe the unique strength of the Philippine-US relationship lies in the deep, longstanding bonds between our peoples. The human connection between us is unbreakable, linking our two nations' past, present, and future.
After two years as ambassador, I'm tremendously optimistic about the future of Philippine-US relations, thanks largely to the vibrant connections between our youth. This year, we celebrated the 70th anniversary of educational exchanges with the Philippines, which have sent 8,000 Filipinos to the United States and brought 1,000 Americans to the Philippines. Through exchange programs like the Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative, we continue to bring together dynamic American and Filipino youth to learn from each other and forge new collaborations. We are also enabling more Filipinos to prepare for global futures through study at US institutions and have even more education programs in store for 2019.
Every December is a special time, but this December has even greater meaning for me as it marks my second anniversary as US ambassador to the Philippines. It is with great pride that I reflect upon a year of accomplishments. I'm confident 2019 has even greater things in store for us. To our Filipino friends, partners, and allies, Manigong Bagong Taon! – Rappler.com