Biden administration: Prospects for Phl-US relations

BABE’S EYE VIEW FROM WASHINGTON D.C. - Ambassador B. Romualdez (The Philippine Star) - January 31, 2021 - 12:00am

The other night, I was invited to the “2021 Prospects for the Philippines” online forum organized by the Foreign Correspondents Association of the Philippines, where I spoke on the prospects for Philippines-United States relations. The open forum after my speech was a welcome opportunity to engage with FOCAP members – among them Jim Gomez of the Associated Press, respected former Beijing based CNN journalist Jim FlorCruz and FOCAP president Jamela Alindogan. The late FOCAP founder Gaby Tabuñar was a personal friend of mine from my early days as a news reporter for Channel 9. It was actually an opportunity for me to share with media the work being done by our Philippine embassy team in Washington.

No one ever expected that a once-in-a century crisis would confront us. The pandemic has wrought untold devastation on people’s lives and their livelihood, with countries especially the United States having to cope with the economic consequences. As I told the FOCAP members and guests, the challenge that our country – as well as the rest of the world – is facing revolves around protecting the people from the COVID-19 pandemic while creating the conditions that would bring about swift and sustainable economic recovery.

As it has only been less than two weeks since President Joe Biden took his oath as US president, it is understandable that the early days of his administration would be devoted to “getting the house in order,” so to speak, with the top priority being the implementation of a comprehensive and detailed strategy to address the raging COVID-19 infection rate in the US.

As early as May last year, we have been talking to US biotech and pharmaceutical companies at the forefront of developing COVID-19 vaccines and we are extremely pleased that we had fruitful discussions, with separate commitments from Novavax (through the Serum Institute of India), Moderna and Johnson & Johnson for the supply of 30 million, 20 million and six million doses of their respective vaccines with initial deliveries beginning as early as this May.

The arrangement with Moderna has the national government, LGUs and the private sector pooling their resources to have as many Filipinos inoculated, particularly those in the frontlines and those providing essential services. I cannot thank businessman Ricky Razon enough for volunteering not only to consolidate orders from LGUs and businesses, but also to ship the vaccines from the manufacturing facility in Europe at no cost to the government – clearly underscoring the importance of private-public partnership during this crisis.

During the Q&A, we were asked how serious the US pivot to Asia is and the situation regarding the South China Sea. I told them the Biden administration was ready to recognize the Philippines’ arbitral award like the previous administration. In fact, early on right after the US elections, we already reached out to senior foreign policy advisers of the incoming Biden administration to get a feel of what their policy would be like on the South China Sea.

During the conversation between Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin and State Secretary Antony Blinken, both reaffirmed the two nations’ commitment to further strengthening the alliance. On the South China Sea, Secretary Blinken gave his assurance that the US will stand with claimant countries and reiterated the previous administration’s stance as far as China’s maritime claims are concerned. He also underscored that the Mutual Defense Treaty will apply to armed attacks against the Philippines – a clear indication that our alliance remains solid.

I was also asked about the Visiting Forces Agreement and while it is in limbo right now, so to speak, I am sure this will be part of the discussion surrounding the Mutual Defense Treaty during the annual Bilateral Strategic Dialogue between the Philippines and the US (which will be done virtually for the first time due to the pandemic) which I will be attending. I will also have a meeting on Monday with a key member of the White House National Security Council to discuss foreign policy issues that impact both our countries.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin acknowledged the importance of Asia, saying that the region must be “the focus of our effort, and I see China in particular as a pacing challenge for the department,” promising that there will be a “laser-like focus on developing the right capabilities, plans, operational concepts” that will ensure that the US will maintain a competitive edge with regard to China.

Secretary Austin also said that the US will continue to advocate the peaceful resolution of maritime disputes without force or coercion. While the US does not insert itself into territorial or maritime disputes to which it is not a part, it maintains a strong position on adherence to the legal regime of the oceans reflected in the Law of the Sea Convention.

The Philippines has been consistent in pushing for the resolution of disputes in a peaceful manner, and we welcome the US effort to work closely with allies and partners in addressing issues of common concern and interest.

While the US Congress is now led by Democrats, we have friends from both sides of the political spectrum, so I remain confident that the bilateral relationship between the US and the Philippines will remain strong. Most importantly, the friendship between the two nations is deeply anchored on our people-to-people ties – made very evident during this pandemic with thousands of Filipino-Americans working as frontliners and essential workers, performing their duties with dedication, compassion and utmost excellence.

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Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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