Letters to the Editor

The President's first foreign visit

- Alberto G. Romulo -

It’s been 24 years since People Power in the Philippines toppled a dictator and set off a global wave of democratic change.

Cory Aquino left a legacy of hope for the Filipino people that with democracy and freedom comes peace and stability.

In May this year, Filipinos once again savored the freedom to chose their own leaders in democratic elections. They chose Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, only son of Cory Aquino and the martyred Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.

The Philippines has been a democratic nation since the EDSA revolution, but true growth and progress have been elusive.

4 days in New York

To meet world leaders and with building our economy in mind, President Noynoy Aquino decided to visit New York City on his first foreign travel.

One might think that four days in New York, in the middle of its busiest political and business season, might not present many opportunities for a newly-elected President and his lean delegation, on his first foreign travel, to pursue his country’s foreign policy objectives.

But in those four days last week in New York, President Benigno S. Aquino III hit multiple targets dead center. It was a highly successful and fruitful first foreign foray for our President.

With an unerring sense of what was important for the country, President Aquino strengthened bilateral relations with key neighbors in Southeast Asia and with the United States, took a lead in charting the future course of ASEAN-US cooperation, sealed one of the largest single grants given to the Philippines, and heightened Philippine engagement in the United Nations.

In the midst of all this, the President met with key investors, important New York media, and the Filipino American Community. He also met with the President of the World Bank.

The President also made sure that he set aside time to honor his mother at her alma mater. He even found the time to endear himself to the common New Yorker and many Filipino Americans by trying out street food.

Forging bilateral ties

In New York, the President had his first ever meeting with a head of state: President Nguyen Minh Triet of Viet Nam, the current chair of ASEAN. During the meeting, President Nguyen personally invited President Aquino to visit Vietnam.

The meeting between the two Presidents went well and because of the very meaningful exchange during this first encounter between the two leaders, I expect President Aquino’s visit to Vietnam in October to be very successful.

President Aquino also met with the prime ministers of two fellow founders of ASEAN – Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore.

With Prime Minister Najib, President Arroyo conveyed his firm determination to bring peace and development to Mindanao and succeeded in getting the commitment of Malaysia to continue to play an active role in our search for peace in the Southern Philippines. The President’s meeting with Singapore, the region’s economic powerhouse, focused on the further strengthening of economic ties.

In his meetings with Malaysia and Singapore, the President also emphasized the great importance he gives to the safety and well being of overseas Filipinos.

$434 million Compact grant

The President also had his first meeting with US President Barack Obama in New York. Both leaders hit it off well and both reiterated their commitment to further reinvigorating the historic and close ties between the Philippines and the United States. President Obama also personally invited President Aquino to visit Washington.

Relations between the Philippines and the United States were further cemented with the signing of the $434-million, five-year Compact grant to reduce poverty, accelerate growth, and create opportunities for the Filipino people — a grant finally given on the strength of the President’s commitment to good government and to fighting corruption.

First taste of regional affairs

In terms of regional issues, President Aquino made his mark when, together with the Presidents of Vietnam and the United States, he led discussions among leaders of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the United States towards a more focused, results-oriented and strategic direction.

The ASEAN-US meeting was opened and co-chaired by Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet, as current chair of ASEAN, and US President Barack Obama. President Aquino, as country coordinator, spoke after the two co-chairs to lead off the two-hour dialogue. As country coordinator for 2009-2012, the Philippines is tasked to broaden and expand areas of cooperation between the countries of Southeast Asia and the United States.

President Aquino expressed the hope that the United States and the 10 member nations of ASEAN will work together to promote a deeper and more harmonious US-ASEAN partnership, and continue stability and peace in the ASEAN region.

This was the President’s first incursion into regional politics. It was made even more challenging because it concerned the future of ASEAN-US relations. The President held his own with the seasoned leaders of ASEAN and the head of the world’s remaining superpower. He fit right in and I believe that this was an excellent way to start his engagement with ASEAN as well as with the US.

World Bank: Renewed confidence in the Philippines

President Aquino also met with World Bank President Robert B. Zoellick and succeeded in bringing back the confidence of this important global financial institution in the Philippines. The President spoke of the increasingly strong fundamentals of the Philippine economy and the innate talent of Filipino entrepreneurs and workers.

Mr. Zoellick was particularly impressed with the President’s efforts to improve the country’s investment climate by rationalizing the regulatory system and tapping the private sector for infrastructure developments through the so-called public-private partnerships (PPP).

Mr. Zoellick recognized that tapping the resources and energy of the private sector through carefully designed public-private sector partnerships would go a long way in achieving sustainable growth that create more jobs for the poor.

Dialogue with Council of Foreign Relations, International Media and Dr. Henry Kissinger

The Council of Foreign Relations is a preeminent forum for world leaders to present their views to a select group of researchers, writers and policy-makers in the field of international relations. This is where the President chose to make his maiden address before an international think tank — and they were not disappointed.

The President’s first dealings with international media were with the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, two major players in news reporting. The President answered their questions with hard facts and strong conviction. He spoke about our strengths as a nation and the opportunities and challenges facing our economy. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are read by global investors. The President’s interviews will give them something good to read about.

Dr. Henry Kissinger, a man who has lived through and been part of the history of our time, also called on the President. The two talked about history and politics. The President easily kept pace with one of the most brilliant minds in foreign policy.

In his many decades in international politics, Dr. Kissinger has met many leaders and knows a good and strong leader when he sees one. He met one in our President.

The Filipino American community

The President received an overwhelming welcome from the Filipinos gathered at the Baruch College Auditorium. Over a thousand came to see him. They cheered wildly as the President spoke to them extemporaneously in Filipino.

Partisan lines disappeared among those present as all listened intently to the President renew his commitment to good government. There were no Liberals or Nacionalistas that night, nor were there Democrats or Republicans — only a gathering of people, each with a heart of a Filipino beating in their chest.

Deeper engagement with the United Nations

At the United Nations, the President met with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and discussed our country’s leading role in the areas of peacekeeping and nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation. During the meeting, Secretary-General Ban thanked President Aquino for the Philippines’ continued active role in the promotion of global peace and security.

President Aquino told Secretary-General Ban that the Philippines remains ready to support the UN peacekeeping operations. He also expressed the country’s commitment to continue playing a vital role in building on the success of the 2010 Review Conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

President Aquino and Secretary-General Ban also discussed the Philippines’ progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). During the meeting, President Aquino stressed the Philippine Government’s commitment to redouble its efforts on particular targets such as income poverty; nutrition; dietary energy requirement; access to safe drinking water; participation, cohort survival and completion rates in elementary education; maternal mortality; access to reproductive health services; and prevalence of HIV and AIDS.

What particularly impressed Secretary-General Ban was the commitment and determination of the President to good governance as a way to achieve these goals. Sustained economic growth will only partially address the issues the country faces. The Philippine Government is committed to eliminate, if not reduce, corruption and improve transparency to ensure government funds are spent on what’s necessary the President said.

Shortly after his meeting with Secretary-General Ban, President Aquino delivered his first address before the 65th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.

Some saw President Aquino’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly merely as a new Chief Executive’s debut on the international stage — something that could be postponed for next year’s General Assembly.

But clearly the President saw the value in personally representing the country early on in his Administration, not only to continue the Philippines’ active role in the world body as a founding member, but to call for global action against current and pressing global challenges that affect the lives of Filipinos. 

For a country that has proven many times that a united people can indeed realize seemingly unachievable objectives, the President believed a “global People Power” can likewise succeed in combating problems such as poverty, climate change, pandemics, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, and human and drug trafficking — problems that are familiar to millions of Filipinos at home and overseas.

More than a call for help, President Aquino’s address to the 192-member General Assembly is a call for global concerted action, realizing that only through this can we solve the world’s ills.  

Honoring a legacy

In a poignant moment during his time in New York, President Aquino honored the treasured memory of his mother by visiting her alma mater, the College of Mount Saint Vincent, and receiving the college’s highest award — the Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton Medal. This is the very same award that the college had conferred on President Corazon C. Aquino.

In honoring his mother, President Aquino said that the People Power in 1986 that toppled the dictatorship and restored democracy now serves as the bones and sinews of our great mandate for reform. He also made a solemn promise to continue his mother’s avowed legacy in fighting poverty and corruption in order to ensure that democracy benefits all Filipinos, and not just a few.

For those of us who were with President Cory in the dark days before EDSA and in building a democratic society after, the ceremony at the College of Mount Saint Vincent was particularly moving. Everyone was profoundly affected by the clear determination of President Aquino to carry on his mother’s legacy.

A successful visit

Whether engaging foreign leaders and policy-makers, getting the commitment of investors, making his mark in the United Nations, engaging the Filipino American community or honoring the memory of his mother, every waking hour was well spent during the four days that the President was in New York.

The President was all business. With a lean delegation but a determination to succeed, New York was a fruitful first foreign foray for the President.

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