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US-Phl relations: The bigger picture

What is really worrisome for the United States, and in fact in this part of the globe as well, is North Korea. This was emphasized by former US State Secretary Madeleine Albright when we met with her at a small private dinner hosted by US Ambassador Sung Kim (see photos in This Week on PeopleAsia at the Allure section of the Philippine Star today).

Mrs. Albright characterized the mounting nuclear ambitions of North Korea as “an extremely dangerous situation.” Last July 3, Pyongyang launched what many believe to be an intercontinental ballistic missile test – prompting experts to warn that Alaska and even Hawaii could be reached in 20 minutes. The initiative of new South Korean president Moon Jae-in to hold talks with North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un was welcomed by global leaders as any military conflict could be disastrous. But so far, there has been no response from Pyongyang.

Trump has called on China to sanction North Korea and “end this nonsense once and for all!” Despite the sanctions, North Korea’s economy grew at record levels in 2016 – with China accounting for more than 92 percent of trade. Coal is one of the biggest imports of North Korea, but this February, China decided to ban all coal imports – which could affect the economy of North Korea this year. Beijing is faced with a delicate balancing act, as it needs to keep relations with other nations “on an even keel” while establishing a position of leadership particularly in the Asia Pacific region.

The White House is scheduling a Manila trip for US President Donald Trump to attend the US-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit this November.  Trump has been briefed about the strategic importance of the 10-nation regional bloc in terms of trade and security considering its combined population of 630 million and a GDP of $2.5 trillion.

Our friends in Washington tell us Trump has been advised to attend the ASEAN summit where he can use it as a platform to demonstrate the United States’ firm commitment to Asia and gather ASEAN support in condemning North Korea on its nuclear warhead program. US State Secretary Rex Tillerson is also expected to be in Manila this August for the ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Conference.

One of the criticisms during the Obama administration is that it “just talked loudly but carried a meek stick” with regard to Asia Pacific issues. As Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop noted – “If stability and prosperity are to continue, the US must play an even greater role as the indispensable strategic power in the Indo-Pacific.”

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There is no question the Philippines plays a critical role in the US strategy regarding Asia. As Mrs. Albright noted, the world “is in a mess” right now with the complicated security situation posed by North Korea and of course, the territorial disputes in the South China Sea.  The bigger picture for the United States is to keep US-Philippine relations, particularly its strategic militarily alliance, as strong as ever. Pentagon officials and the US Pacific command confirmed this to us during our last visit to Washington and Hawaii. The fact is, our relations with the US have greatly improved since Donald Trump became president. Both Trump and Duterte seem to have good chemistry.

The president may or may not touch on foreign policy when he delivers his State of the Nation Address tomorrow. But so far, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has managed to make our friends abroad understand that the Philippines is expanding its relationships – with the seemingly reverberating strong and clear message: “We are friends to everyone and enemies to none.”

We will be joining Secretary Cayetano on a trip to Washington, DC sometime in September, and hopefully, our business group will focus on promoting “build, build, build” and dispel the “kill, kill, kill” perception that some misinformed US Congressmen are propagating.

One of the most important things for this administration is to continue building up the economy – which is one of the priorities of the president, who has always maintained that once the peace and order problem is finally resolved, the economy will soar. There is a major concern about martial law in Mindanao which will be extended to the end of the year. However, a majority of Filipinos believe this is necessary to finally clean up Mindanao and crush the Maute and other terrorist groups in the South.

Majority of Filipinos also firmly believe the president made the right decision – which is why he has the trust and approval of 82 percent of the people who see him as a firm and strong leader who can hold his own against leaders of big nations like the US, China and Russia.

Former Foreign Secretary Bobby Romulo pointed out in his column that the 82 percent trust and approval of the president should encourage the latter to use this in asserting the favorable ruling made on the South China issue. Despite the president’s cool attitude regarding the US, Filipinos still consider it as the more trustworthy ally compared to China that President Rody is cultivating warm relations with. Bobby notes there is a seeming “disconnect.”

My take on this is that while Filipinos do not want the president to downgrade our relationship with our longstanding ally, they also support him in his decision to be firm in telling allies not to interfere in what he is doing to eliminate corruption, end the drug menace and criminality, and crush the terrorist groups in Mindanao that might eventually destroy the country. I think US-Philippine relations are now on an even keel.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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