One old, one new
Well, the summit is now over, the delegates long packed up and gone.
The events went flawlessly, with no security incidents. Numerous agreements were signed, bilateral deals concluded, the work started on a hopefully binding maritime code of conduct between China and Asean.
The President again dodged the perennial bullet on human rights issues in his war on drugs, with just one leader—Canada’s Justin Trudeau—going on record as bringing it up in his talks with Duterte. Trudeau, a radical liberal, gets to be cut a lot of slack for his movie-star good looks. We just wish he’d pay as much attention to the dozens of containers of Canadian trash taking up space in Manila’s ports since way back 2013.
Duterte’s tireless critics were reduced to complaining about the scruffy way he wore his barong Tagalog, even if he’s never claimed to be a fashion plate. With such meager pickings, the critics might as well heed the naughty advice to them from our UN ambassador Teddy Boy Locsin: Suicide is an option. Magpakamatay na lang kayo.
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Among the guests, most eyes were expectedly on US President Donald Trump. The glad-handing business tycoon was not above pushing his considerable weight around in photo ops, pulling Duterte by the shoulder toward himself with his left hand as he shook hands with his right, in a vintage display of power body language.
And I cringed at Trump’s well-intentioned but clueless tweet towards the end, when he favorably compared Duterte’s good-natured singing of “Ikaw” to the guests with the rest of the Filipino stage talent.
But none of this seems to have gotten in the way of the positive chemistry that’s developing between these two self-made men, both of them outsiders to the political establishment. Here are some items that ought to be taken up immediately in restoring the US-Philippine alliance:
• US offer of more weapons and training support —American intelligence, personnel, and materiel support was invaluable in liberating Marawi. Now Australia, China, our southern Asean neighbors, even Japan are stepping up their military support and coordination as well. With our geostrategic location, and given US concern over North Korea, the security relationship with our oldest ally ought to be deepened.
• US-PH free trade agreement—DTI Secretary Mon Lopez is bullish about this, and JPEPA—our bilateral FTA with Japan—can serve as a useful template. It will need some work, given Trump’s protectionist and nativist tendencies. But it will definitely be important for us, especially now that the US has pulled out of its proposed Trans Pacific Partnership.
• Keep the US open to BPO —This may be even more important for our services-based economy than an FTA about tradable goods. It’s an issue where Trump’s populism about US workers may clash with his business connections and instincts. We ought to remind Americans that our high-quality, low-cost BPO services help to keep US companies globally competitive. And looking farther ahead, we should draw on US artificial intelligence technology to keep our own BPO’s competitive as well.
• Distance the US from the EU on drug and human rights issues—Trump has his own public health problems with opioids, and he’s well aware of the radical liberalism and multilateralism that underlie European pronouncements on human rights. Duterte can count on him to at least keep his peace on these issues, no matter how much noise may be raised among Duterte’s Fil-Am critics, who’re all Democrats anyway.
• Return the Balangiga bells—There are private parties involved here, which limits the scope for US government help. But it’s an important sentimental issue for us and deserves to be kept on the front burner.
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Compared to Trump, a much lower profile was maintained by Russian President Vladimir Putin—who is arguably even more influential on the world stage—and by his prime minister Dimitri Medvedev. But the Russians were, if anything, even busier than the Americans, signing a total of nine new agreements with their Philippine counterparts.
Here are what I think will be quick wins among the deals being worked out:
• Maritime training exchange programs (including donation of a training vessel) and military hardware sales or donations (including a submarine)—The submarine would be the very first one in our Navy, and it would certainly put the Chinese on notice.
• Technology transfer—The Russians singled out Glonass, a satellite-based navigation technology similar to GPS. Prime Minister Medvedev also cited energy transfer, agriculture, and financial services technology as other areas of interest.
The following are higher-lying fruit that will require a bit more work, but will be well worth the effort:
• Russian export market for our agricultural products—There ought to be a huge market in wintry Russia for our tropical crops. Just last month, both countries signed an agricultural cooperation agreement for up to $2.5 Billion of Philippine exports, well above the $50 Million we’re now sending them each year. But with our government focused on more basic issues like rice security, a lot of the initiative here will have to come from large local agribusiness groups.
• Direct flights between Manila and Moscow— There ought to be a huge market as well among Russians fleeing their harsh winters for our tropical climes. But we’ll have to negotiate “five freedoms” reciprocity between the carriers of both countries, and, more importantly, attend to the backlog in our airport infrastructure, hotel rooms (especially in the 3-star category), and other transport connectivity.
• Russian investments in ship repair and infrastructure—The Russians are interested to look at the mothballed North Rail and the very-much-alive New Clark City projects. They may also build a ship repair facility here to service Vladivostok and other warm-water ports. What will be critical for us to look at are Russian financing costs (interest rates and currency stability) and the concessionality of the financing terms they offer.
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Amid all these optimistic prospects with the Russians, what may turn out to be a ball-buster, however, is their proposal to assist with our nuclear energy development program. What they have in mind are small modular reactors that can be either built on land or floated offshore.
Unfortunately, even decades later, the memory of Chernobyl still haunts us, and the rest of the world. This will be a tough sell to our people.
DoE Secretary Al Cusi has wisely stated that our collaboration with Russia on nuclear power can start only after “acceptance by the community.” For the meantime, it may help to put some distance between Russia and our nuclear program, perhaps by inviting other interested parties and countries to participate as well in our planning and development activity.
Within our region alone, India and South Korea come to mind as countries who can contribute. Sometimes, in order to go faster on things that do matter, we need to go slower on things that don’t matter as much.
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